Examining Exodus 14 with the Geosciences

I have published another peer-reviewed article on the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt and Moses crossing the Red Sea. The citation is:

Drews, Carl, Examining Exodus 14 with the Geosciences (2015). Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin (NEASB) Volume 60, pages: 1-15.

Here is the Abstract:

There are similarities between the physical details described in the Exodus 14 narrative of the parting of the Red Sea, and a wind setdown event in the eastern Nile delta. This publication takes the ocean model results reported by Drews and Han in 2010 and places them in a biblical, archaeological, and historical context. Certain biblical and archaeological research also supports a crossing at the Kedua Gap or possibly at Tell Abu Sefeh. The proposed locations are within 10 km of a place identified as Migdol by several biblical scholars. Four possible crossing sites are evaluated with respect to the biblical text, and what they might imply for the route of a Hebrew exodus from Egypt during the New Kingdom period. The scientific plausibility of the ancient account suggests that Exodus 14 preserves the memory of an actual historical event.

Examining Exodus 14 with the Geosciences, detail of Figure 3.

Detail of Figure 3, showing the approaches to the four crossing sites. Drews, Carl, Examining Exodus 14 with the Geosciences (2015). Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin (NEASB) Volume 60, pages: 1-15.

A few important conclusions:

  1. Exodus 14 holds up well under modern scientific examination.
  2. The meteorological details given in the text are supported by ocean models and observations of similar events that have occurred in modern times.
  3. Analysis of the current flow and grain size within the Kedua Gap reveals that Moses and the Israelites would have been walking across coarse sand instead of wallowing in deep mud.
  4. The biblical narrative requires knowledge of Egyptian topography and meteorology that would be difficult to acquire without spending decades in that country.
  5. The historical interplay between the narrative in Exodus 14 and the “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15 may be resolved by distinguishing between the ancient content present in both chapters, and the archaic language of Exodus 15.

To obtain a copy of the paper, please contact the Near East Archaeological Society.

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Don’t Believe “The Bible Unearthed”

Yet another atheist blogger has come upon the book “The Bible Unearthed” (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, 2001) and swallowed it (almost!) wholesale. Chris Hallquist posted Pulling some devastating punches: a review of The Bible Unearthed at Patheos.org on October 22, 2012. He admits that he has not verified the book’s thesis, “But if they are right, it’s just devastating to all the Abrahamic religions.”

Hallquist summarizes the hypothesis of Finkelstein and Silberman, that the majority of Genesis through 2 Kings is the product of seventh century authors working for King Josiah during the final 13 years of his reign (ending in 609 BC). That is an accurate summary of the Josiah Hypothesis, but then Hallquist makes this outlandish claim:

Ahistoricity is the verdict for every Biblical story up until David and Solomon.

Nope! Finkelstein and Silberman don’t say that. What F&S do say, with a lot of hedging and weasel words, is that the Josiah corpus was based on earlier material, and was skilfully woven together from earlier sources (pages 23, 33, 69-70, 284). The Bible Unearthed does not claim that the Exodus never happened, for example. (Between Migdol and the Sea, page 220)

Tel Dan Stele, referring to the House of David. Wikimedia Commons, by yoav dothan.

Tel Dan Stele, referring to the House of David. Wikimedia Commons, by yoav dothan.

Chris Hallquist repeats the common error of concluding that if current archaeology cannot find direct evidence for the “supposed activities” of David and Solomon, then those activities of the United Monarchy never happened. This same error is prevalent in Wikipedia articles about the Exodus. Hallquist also thinks that most people have never heard of King Josiah, the famous reformer who found the long-lost Book of the Law in the Temple and tore his clothes.

The punches are really not so devastating

“The Bible Unearthed” is about as devastating to Abrahamic religions as the creationist claims of Answers in Genesis are devastating to Darwin’s theory of evolution: not at all. And here’s why: Many of us who adhere to one of the Abrahamic religions have learned the skills of critical thinking. More specifically, when we hear a series of claims we investigate what the other side has to say. (Acts 15:1-35) Here are two detailed rebuttals to The Bible Unearthed:

  • On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by Kenneth Kitchen (2003), pages 464-468. The alleged anachronisms are no such thing, and the date markers for the Exodus point to the reign of Rameses II (1279 – 1213 BC).
  • Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science, by Carl Drews (that’s me) (2014), Chapter 9 Confronting the Minimalists. The Josiah Hypothesis of Finkelstein and Silberman simply makes too many wrong predictions, doesn’t explain the evidence, and would be discarded under the Scientific Method.

The most interesting part of Chris Hallquist’s post comes at the end, where he discusses the Epilogue of The Bible Unearthed. Hallquist is struck by the dissonance between using the biblical saga of liberation (alleged by F&S) as an excuse to “invade your neighbors up north” and de-liberate them. He says:

As I read this stuff, I’m thinking, “did they forget what they just spent most of this book arguing? You know, the stuff about a lot of the Bible being royal propaganda? For a king who wanted to expand his empire through conquest? I dunno, maybe they think the desire to invade your neighbors up north and make them be part of your kingdom is a deep human need which makes perfect sense to include alongside the desire to be free from oppression, but otherwise I have no idea. I don’t know what else to say about this; it’s just really, really weird on the face of it.

Testing the Josiah Hypothesis

Scientists test hypotheses by experimentation, by pushing the implications of their hypothesis to its logical conclusions and seeing if any contradictions arise. If the earth is flat, then it must have an edge all around; nobody has ever found such a thing, so the earth must not be flat. If the Old Testament expresses “timeless themes of a people’s liberation,” then King Josiah would be an idiot to order its creation as propaganda for his planned wars of conquest. If the purpose behind the Deuteronomistic history is to glorify the United Monarchy, then why do Kings David and Solomon have so many obvious flaws? Why is David an adulterer and a murderer, and why does Solomon marry so many foreign wives? (1 Kings 11:1-8) Why does the genealogy of Judahite Kings pass through the messy episode of Judah and Tamar? (Genesis 38) Yes, it is really weird.

The logical conclusion does not seem to have occurred to Chris Hallquist: The Josiah Hypothesis is wrong. The hypothesis is testable, and it fails those tests. Finkelstein and Silberman’s book The Bible Unearthed is fatally flawed. The Old Testament is not a fabricated history dreamed up by creative scribes to justify some national war of liberation. Instead, the Old Testament is an authentic record of the Hebrew people who described events from their own point of view, valued their history, refused to worship their ancestors, and saw the hand of their God in bringing them through many struggles. Archaeology cannot verify all the details of that narrative, but archaeology’s limitations do not mean that those events never happened.

That’s why I say that Chris Hallquist almost swallowed the book wholesale. He was on the right track, realizing that The Bible Unearthed has some major logical flaws in its thesis. Yes, Chris, you were not the only one who recognized that dissonance. You may not like the answer, but those are the results. The Josiah Hypothesis fails the scientific method.

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“Friendly” Atheist wonders why people don’t trust Richard Dawkins

A blogger named Hemant Mehta writes a column at patheos.com which he calls “Friendly Atheist.” On June 18, 2015 he wrote about a scientific article published in the journal Public Understanding of Science by Christopher P. Scheitle of West Virginia University, and Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University. The original article is:

The influence of science popularizers on the public’s view of religion and science: An experimental assessment (2015)

The blog at Friendly Atheist is titled “New Research on the Science vs. Religion Debate Looks at the Effectiveness of Different Science Popularizers” (June 18, 2015)

Dr. Francis Collins

Dr. Francis Collins

The atheist blogger does not like the scientific results of the study, which find that Christian scientist Francis Collins is more effective at persuading people that religion and science are compatible, than New Atheist scientist Richard Dawkins is at persuading people that religion and science must be in opposition to each other. But what caught my attention here is how this blogger attributes the difference to “social prejudice” against atheists. The self-proclaimed “Friendly” Atheist is taking a page from Ken Ham’s playbook at Answers in Genesis. Young-earth creationists routinely claim to be persecuted for their views, and here is “Friendly” Atheist claiming the same thing:

The one thing this suggests for me is that scientists who are known for being atheists will have a hard time moving the public with them because of social prejudice.

The word “prejudice” means pre-judgment. No, “Friendly” Atheist is wrong. It is a case of simple judgment. When the general public sees Professor PZ Myers pulling an offensive stunt like The Great Desecration of a communion wafer, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that New Atheists are very dislikable people. If some of the public, religious or not, encounter his foul-mouthed ranting on Pharyngula, the judgment is confirmed. Word gets around. Very few voters want a Mayor or Senator like PZ Myers in public office.

Dr. Richard Dawkins

Dr. Richard Dawkins

Just about every presentation of young-earth creationism I have seen features a few inflammatory quotations by Richard Dawkins, sure to provoke outrage among the Christian fundamentalists. YEC activists are savvy enough to know that Dawkins moves their target audience away from science. Richard Dawkins is the best friend that young-earth creationism has ever had.

And it’s not just the prominent New Atheists who are ill-mannered and uncouth. The “Friendly” Atheist was unable to comment on the historical Adam without including the f-word in his post:

“There Was No Historical Adam” (June 2011)

I love how some Christians are debating things that secular science figured out a long fucking time ago.

The social problems of the New Atheists are entirely of their own making. Now of course we know that the First Amendment protects free speech. Hemant Mehta is free to fill up his “Friendly” Atheist blog with insults, cuss words, profanity, and foul language. Then he can claim “social prejudice” against the New Atheists and their causes. But nobody else will be surprised if the general public (outside of his blog followers) doesn’t buy it.

The unfortunate part of this situation is that most atheists (lower case a) will inevitably be stereotyped by the uncivilized behavior of the few prominent New Atheists. None of my friends have to use the f-word when discussing a theological matter. It’s up to the mainstream atheists to distance themselves from the ill-mannered activists.

The influence of science popularizers on the public’s view of religion and science: An experimental assessment

The research and publication by Christopher Scheitle and Elaine Howard Ecklund is far more interesting than the “Friendly” Atheist would have you believe. They used Francis Collins as the archetype of the religious scientist and Richard Dawkins as the archetype of the atheist scientist. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University and one of the New Atheist activists.

For the relationship between faith and science, the researchers considered three philosophical models:

  • Conflict: Faith and science must be in opposition to each other.
  • Independence: Faith addresses questions of morality, while science discovers how the natural world works.
  • Collaboration: Faith and science influence and guide each other toward better results.

Scheitle and Ecklund note that “While this conflict narrative receives a great deal of attention, a relatively small proportion of the US public states that they personally see religion and science as in conflict (Baker, 2012).” Young-earth creationists and New Atheists most commonly hold the Conflict model.

Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is well-known for advocating the independence model with his “non-overlapping magisteria.” Theistic evolutionists hold the Collaboration model (such as Francis Collins, Ken Miller, John Polkinghorne, and Karl Giberson).

So here is what Scheitle and Ecklund did. They analyzed the Religious Understandings of Science (RUS) study. Respondents to the study were asked if they had ever heard of a scientist named Dr. Richard Dawkins, or Dr. Francis Collins. If not, then some respondents were given a short description of that scientist, including their position as Conflict or Collaboration between faith and science. Others were given no description (and presumably were left forever wondering why the survey would ask about that scientist). Finally the survey respondents were asked to state their preferred position; and if Conflict, which side they personally were on. Table 2 shows the results for Richard Dawkins [Scheitle and Ecklund 2015].

Table 2: Richard Dawkins

View Group No description Given Description Change
Conflict – on side of religion Young-earth creationists 15.6 14.7 -0.9
Conflict – on side of science New Atheists 10.7 12.4 +1.7
Independence Gould 35.8 34.4 -1.4
Collaboration Theistic science 38.0 38.6 +0.6

The researchers say that these small changes are not statistically significant, and since I’m not a statistician I’ll take their word for it. Nevertheless, Dawkins seems to increase his New Atheist position by a small number (+1.7%), at the expense of the Gould Independence position (-1.4).

Table 3: Francis Collins

View Group No description Given Description Change
Conflict – on side of religion Young-earth creationists 15.4 10.3 -5.1
Conflict – on side of science New Atheists 12.5 11.2 -1.3
Independence Gould 36.8 28.7 -8.1
Collaboration Theistic science 35.3 49.8 +14.5

Francis Collins makes the numbers change. The researchers state that the changes in Table 3 are statistically significant. Collins reduces the New Atheists by a small amount (-1.3%). But the big message here is that Francis Collins takes significant portions of Young-Earth Creationists (-5.1%) and Gould Independence advocates (-8.1%), and converts them to his own Collaboration model (+14.5%). And all by just a short description of his professional status and religious views. That’s remarkable!

Why is Francis Collins more convincing than Richard Dawkins?

Why does Francis Collins have more convincing power than Richard Dawkins in the RUS survey? Scheitle and Ecklund suggest:

  1. Familiarity. Although Richard Dawkins may be unknown, his Conflict position is familiar from media coverage of religion and science. Readers are neither surprised nor swayed by the Dawkins description. It follows that the New Atheists can manage to convince about 12.4% of the population that their Conflict position is correct, but that’s about all they will get.

    Francis Collins, on the other hand, presents a surprise to many survey respondents. Table 1 of the original paper notes that 21.4% of the respondents had heard of Dawkins, while only 4.3% had heard of Collins. It follows that theistic scientists can convince 49.8% of the population that their Collaborative position is correct, if we can just get the word out.

  2. Perceived credibility. Scheitle and Ecklund state, “research has shown that the US public is generally distrustful of atheists and view them more negatively than most other ethnic, religious, and minority groups (Edgell et al., 2006; Gervais et al., 2011).” This is the point that “Friendly” Atheist Hemant Mehta calls “social prejudice” in order to deflect the blame elsewhere. Yet episodes like PZ Myers and The Great Desecration at his blog Pharyngula show that this distrust is well-deserved. We never know what offensive stunt the New Atheists are going to pull next.
  3. Tone and Openness. The researchers suggest that Francis Collins’ message is more appealing to the public. Richard Dawkins’ message, and the combative way he expresses it, does not appeal to anyone not already in his camp.

I will suggest another reason: 4. The Conflict model of Dawkins, Myers, and Jerry Coyne is just plain wrong. The very existence of Francis Collins, a world-class scientist and evangelical Christian, disproves their thesis of inevitable conflict. And if he were not enough, the thousands of scientific papers published annually by religious scientists provide sufficient evidence that there is no necessary conflict between faith and science.

The “Friendly” Atheist blog of June 18, 2015 is another example of atheists vehemently rejecting science when they don’t like the results (see Between Migdol and the Sea, Chapter 6). In this respect the New Atheists are much like their opposite counterpart, the Young-Earth Creationists. Science does not mix well with ideology, no matter what extreme position is the source of that ideology.

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Crossing the Red Sea? Not at Aqaba, Nuweiba, or Tiran

My latest scientific paper is an ocean modeling study that examines the influence of wind direction on storm surge. This particular question grew out of an embarrassing mistake I made during my first semester of graduate school at the University of Colorado. The full citation is:

Drews, Carl (2015) Directional Storm Surge in Enclosed Seas: The Red Sea, the Adriatic, and Venice. Journal of Marine Science and Engineering 3(2), 356-367. doi:10.3390/jmse3020356

The Adriatic case study looked at winds blowing toward the city of Venice, Italy. I calculated a maximum surge of 2.02 meters when winds are blowing from 320° Cartesian; this result agrees with the historical maximum surge of 1.94 meters recorded on November 4, 1966.

Why not the Gulf of Aqaba?

The Red Sea case study examined the wind-driven storm surge and wind setdown in the northern reaches of the Red Sea. The COAWST/ROMS ocean model shows that although sea levels at Suez can drop to 1.72 meters below sea level (without tides), the Gulf of Aqaba is too deep to generate significant storm surge or wind setdown. The sea level at Aqaba changes by only ±5 centimeters, with even smaller variation at Nuweiba and the Straits of Tiran (JMSE Figure 8).

5 centimeters is not enough provide a dry passage for Moses and the Israelites through the Red Sea, nor is it enough water to drown Pharaoh’s chariot army when the wind ceases and the waters return. For more detailed information on why the Aqaba crossings won’t work, please see my longer article at migdolbook.com: Crossing the Red Sea at Aqaba? No.

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Saving Lives With Ocean Models

The orphans were tied together for their safety. Their teacher had attached all the children with lengths of rope, tied securely around their waists, as the storm approached Galveston and the waters began to rise. And that is how the rescuers uncovered their lifeless bodies, by following the rope from one drowned child to another.

Erik Larson relates the tragedy of the Galveston orphans in his 2000 book Isaac’s Storm. A total of ~9,000 souls perished in that 1900 disaster. In 2005 a similar tragedy befell New Orleans, as Hurricane Katrina swept into the Louisiana delta and drove Lake Pontchartrain over the levees into downtown New Orleans. 1,833 people lost their lives, and at $108 billion Hurricane Katrina represented the largest monetary loss in U.S. history due to natural causes.

These human tragedies don’t have to be repeated.

I’m an ocean modeler at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. This is my personal blog at funmurphys.com with my own views. I use computer simulation to study hurricane-driven storm surge. I can send a Category 5 hurricane into New York, or Miami, or even Buffalo, New York. I can watch an advancing wall of water obliterate downtown Tokyo from the comfort of my office, all without anyone else getting wet. To do this, I construct a digital model of the coast and I blast it with 150-km/hr winds. A supercomputer calculates the hourly rise in sea level as the storm waters inundate populated areas. I can verify my calculations with past events, and evaluate the risk posed by future hurricanes.

Figure 11. Directional analysis at New York Harbor (experiment NY7).

Figure 11 of Drews C, Galarneau TJ Jr (2015) Directional Analysis of the Storm Surge from Hurricane Sandy 2012, with Applications to Charleston, New Orleans, and the Philippines. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0122113. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122113

Grid cells in the ocean model are wet or dry. Grid cells containing water are colored blue for the sea; grid cells on land are colored green for vegetation. When the ocean rises and floods formerly dry cells (storm surge), I color them red. I use yellow when a normally wet cell becomes dry (wind setdown).

Just four colors: blue, green, red, and yellow. The ocean model runs and the grid cells change color. That’s all. It’s just a numerical model. But I also realize: People live in those grid cells. Every cell is home to businesswomen, teenagers, hourly laborers, little babies, and retired couples. The grids on my computer screen are filled with living, breathing, working, laughing people. Every grid cell matters. When I see a set of green cells along the coast turn red, I know the human cost. I have joined flood cleanup efforts and seen the destruction. I think about how to prevent the next disaster, how to warn these communities, and how to get them out of harm’s way.

If you live in a coastal area, you should know that supercomputers are even now running and calculating to protect your life and property. Researchers are developing coastal models to evaluate your risk and your evacuation plans. At NCAR, NOAA, and the National Hurricane Center, projects are underway to forecast hurricane-driven storm surge. Today you can view your city’s risk at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/experimental/inundation/. Hopefully someday you will be able to click on a Google Earth plot of your own house and show the hourly surge forecast as the storm approaches.

Other hurricanes will surely come. Typhoons will pound the coasts of the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan. We are determined that there will never be another Galveston 1900, that the human tragedy of New Orleans 2005 will never happen again. With accurate and timely forecasts, we are working to ensure that next time people won’t be in the way when the big waves come ashore.

Carl Drews, author of Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science.

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Crossing the Red Sea is indeed a miracle

I have come across yet another blogger who has gotten the idea that the purpose of my scientific research on Moses crossing the Red Sea was to refute the miracle. This time it’s blogger Nick Foust and “Science Explains How Moses Could Have Actually Parted The Red Sea”. If you decide to look up the original post, you are hereby warned of foul language.

Crossing the Red Sea

Cover of “Between Migdol and the Sea” by Carl Drews (2014)

Ancient Hebrew writers and we modern Christians have always viewed Exodus 14 as a miracle. Unlike us, the writers of the Old Testament did not quibble over which laws of physics were temporarily suspended and which held fast. They focused on the Israelites’ deliverance from certain death at the hands of Pharaoh and his army of pursuing chariots. They praised God when they ended up alive on the other side of the sea, and we should also praise God for His salvation.

According to Exodus 14, God sent the east wind at just the right time to part the Red Sea and reveal a path of escape for Moses. The miracle is in the timing, and in the advance notice given to Moses. The Bible states that God used the natural agent of wind to deliver His chosen people. Nick Foust apparently comes around to this view (theistic meteorology) in his final paragraph, but you’ll have to wade through some disparaging comments about me and science before you get there.

It is entirely appropriate for science to study this mighty work of God (Psalm 111:2). To the ancient Hebrews, God is in charge of the natural world and all its forces. To modern Christians, science is the study of God’s creation. My research reveals the mechanics of this great miracle, and locates the site where it happened in the eastern Nile delta. Commenter Sam has it right – God is amazing!

Carl Drews, author of “Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science

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Book Review: The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix, by James Watson, Alexander Gann, and Jan Witkowski (2012)

Watson-Crick double-helix

“Traditional” Watson-Crick double-helix, by user Notahelix at Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Watson-Crick_double_helix.gif

I really enjoyed reading this book! The Annotated and Illustrated version of The Double Helix includes photos, letters, sketches, and biographical information about the other actors in this human drama over the structure of DNA. Author James Watson narrates the intrepid scientific journey of discovery on which he and Francis Crick traveled, eventually leading to the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Maurice Wilkins.

By my reckoning Watson’s two greatest blunders were his move from Copenhagen to Cambridge in September 1951 before getting permission from the NRC Merck Fellowship Board (p. 38-39 and Appendix 3), and the embarrassing presentation to the King’s College group in December 1951 (where he mis-remembered the water content of DNA, p. 91-93). Despite these setbacks, Watson’s exuberance, keen curiosity, resilience after failure, and sense of humor carried him forward to the published solution on 25 April 1953. The Double Helix should inspire graduate students everywhere when research gets tough.

Page 182 should at last refute the longstanding claim that Photo 51, taken by Rosalind Franklin, was used by Watson and Crick without her knowledge or permission.


 X-ray diffraction image of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule

X-ray diffraction image of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule, taken 1952 by Raymond Gosling, commonly referred to as “Photo 51”, during work by Rosalind Franklin on the structure of DNA. Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Photo_51_x-ray_diffraction_image.jpg

Page 182 contains dual statements by Ray Gosling and Maurice Wilkins about the fateful handover. They both agree that as Rosalind Franklin was hurriedly preparing to leave King’s College for Birkbeck College (also in London) in January 1953, she directed Gosling to turn over Photo 51 to Wilkins as a “present” to use as he wished.

Accordingly, on January 30, Gosling met Wilkins in the corridor, handed him the crucial X-ray diffraction image, and assured the surprised recipient that he could do whatever he wanted with it. Shortly thereafter (early February 1953) came the angry encounter between Rosy and Jim Watson, leading to Maurice showing Watson Photo 51 (Chapter 23). Yes, the transfer was irregular, and Franklin’s lack of formality here has cast suspicion that lingers to this day. But Rosalind Franklin did indeed turn over her DNA research results to Maurice Wilkins with explicit permission to use as he judged best. That usage properly included sharing the photo with research collaborators Francis Crick and James Watson.


Well, you just read this book review without my knowledge, didn’t you?

Carl Drews is author of Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science. This review was also published at Amazon.com.

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Moses, Tides, and Miracles of Timing

Bruce Parker published an essay in the Wall Street Journal in December 2014 explaining the hypothesis of Moses and tides near Suez: How Did Moses Part the Red Sea? The science of tides may have saved the Israelites from the Egyptians. Parker acknowledges that a fortuitous wind would have assisted Moses’ cause, but that Moses would be unable to forecast the wind. Samuel Bartlett had published a similar hypothesis in 1879; it’s common in this field to update older proposals with new science and technology. See my book Between Migdol and the Sea Chapter 3 Analyzing a Miracle for coverage of prior research into the Red Sea crossing.

Bay of Suez, 1856.

Wikimedia Commons: File:Suez Bay, Egypt (Justus Perthes’ Geographische Anstalt, 1856).jpg

There are reports that the French Emperor Napoleon I was almost drowned at Suez when he tried to make a nighttime return from Ayun Musa (“The Springs of Moses”) across the ford back to Suez. The Gutenberg Project has an on-line version of the Memoirs of Napoleon by De Bourienne. Search for “Suez” there to find the French Emperor’s misadventure with the tidal flats in the northern reaches of the Red Sea. There is some uncertainty over exactly what happened, and just how close Napoleon Bonaparte came to drowning.

Here is a real-time tide table for Suez, Egypt:
The cycle at Suez is semi-diurnal (two cycles per 24 hours). The amplitude is about 1.5 meters (5 feet). This range matches the French account.

Here is some information from NOAA about tides:

Dr. Parker says that Moses “lived in the nearby wilderness in his early years” and thereby was familiar with the tidal patterns at Suez. Pharaoh’s chariot commanders lived along the Nile river and therefore did not know about the peculiar caravan crossing at Suez. I disagree. According to the book of Exodus, Moses lived in the land of Midian, which is east of the Gulf of Aqaba and a long way from Suez. I should think that at least one of the Egyptian commander or his officers would be familiar with the tidal ford at Suez (Clysma). If Moses had relied on the tides alone to make his escape and bring destruction on the chariot force, his careful plan would have been disrupted by just one Egyptian officer with knowledge of the tides at Suez.

Parker states (emphasis added):

Timing would have been crucial. The last of the Israelites had to cross the dry sea bottom just before the tide returned, enticing Pharaoh’s army of chariots onto the exposed sea bottom, where they would drown as the returning tidal waters overwhelmed them. If the chariots were expected to arrive before the tide came back in, Moses might have planned some type of delaying tactic. If the chariots were expected to arrive after the tide came back in, he could have gotten the Israelites across and then, at the next low tide, sent a few of his best people back onto the temporarily dry sea bed to entice Pharaoh’s chariots to chase them.

The ford at Suez.

Wikimedia Commons: File:Bartlett1879-NorthernGulfSuez.png

Although the Suez Tidal Hypothesis needs no miracle of timing for the tides (since the cycle is predictable), it does require precisely fatal timing on the part of the chariot commander. It is difficult to entice an enemy to fall into a military trap, but it would require a miracle of ignorance and stupidity for that enemy to fall into the trap at just the right time as well. Without God, this is a very risky plan. If the chariots arrived at the crossing an hour too soon or too late, Moses would lose the ensuing battle and the Israelites would be slaughtered. If my family and I lived through the tidal escape scenario at Suez, I would surely fall on my knees and thank God for His deliverance.

What kind of miracle?

There is some talk on various Internet discussion groups about how the “tidal option” might eliminate the need for a miracle of timing, since the tides at Suez are predictable after a period of careful observation. “No miracles required,” they say. This suggestion shows a modern meaning of “miracle” that is not the Old Testament’s view. I take the biblical view – that a miracle is a marvelous and unusual event that turns out in the Israelite’s favor. Nevertheless, here are the problems with a “tides only” scenario at Suez:

1. The Suez Tidal Hypothesis does not match the narrative. Exodus 14 says that God sent the east wind, and the wind parted the sea. The wind did it! Although the ancient Israelites were not oceanographers, they could see that the wind somehow moved away the water and created a temporary land bridge for them to cross the yam suf to freedom.

2. Moses was not at Suez. Moses spent his exile in Midian, which is on the far side of Aqaba east of the Wadi Arabah. Cairo is 125 km in a straight-line distance from Suez, and Aqaba is 240 km as the crow flies. Moses may have passed along a caravan route through Suez, but so would have many Egyptian soldiers on their way to the turquoise mine at Serabit el-Khadim (Between Migdol and the Sea, Chapter 9, page 218).

3. Moses has to get the Israelites across in about 4 hours. The semi-diurnal cycle means that the tides ebb and flow every 12 hours. Moses would have perhaps 4 hours to get the tribes across the ford during low tide. My Tanis Hypothesis also uses a crossing time of 4 hours, but I don’t pretend that it would be easy to complete the nighttime evacuation without something going wrong.

4. The Egyptians have to be completely unaware of the tides at Suez. All it would take is one Egyptian officer, or the chariot commander himself, to have passed through Suez and learned of the tidal nature of the crossing. In Napoleon’s time the locals knew the pattern very well. Just one person among the pursuing force could spoil Moses’s plan.

5. The chariot force has to advance at just the right time. This is probably the biggest problem, and Bruce Parker recognizes this aspect of the Tides at Suez Hypothesis. He suggests that Moses could have used delaying or taunting tactics to draw the chariots across the ford before the tide returned. It would be worth a try! In military history, commanders sometime succeed in luring their enemy into a trap, like Hannibal did at the Battle of Lake Trasimene in 217 BC. Sometimes the trap horribly fails, like the attempt at a surprise night attack by the Jacobites before the Battle of Culloden in 1746. But to get your enemy not only to fall into your trap, but to blunder fatally at just the right time – that would be a military miracle.

Those who contend that Moses could easily have used the tides at Suez to pull off his escape and the destruction of the Egyptian chariot force are much too casual about the difficulties and uncertainties involved in carrying out such a plan. Of course God could make the tidal plan work, as Exodus 14 insists. I would not try it without Him.

Movie Review: Exodus Gods and Kings

Yesterday morning I caught the early bird showing of the new movie “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by Ridley Scott. Regular readers of Funmurphys: the Blog already know that I have written and published a new book about the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, focusing specifically on crossing the Red Sea. The book is titled: Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science (2014), by Carl Drews. This review is written from a book author’s perspective.

Spectacle and Grandeur

A good biblical epic should provide jaw-dropping spectacle and majestic grandeur. Exodus: Gods and Kings provides these in abundance! Some of the earlier scenes show the great sweep of the Nile delta, with pyramids rising along the banks of the great river, while Bronze Age citizens bustle about under the stern watch of the Pharaoh’s foremen. Ancient Egypt was a marvelous place! This movie really brings out the grandeur of the New Kingdom in all its glory.

Ten Plagues

The Ten Plagues are depicted graphically in the film, and the result is disturbing. A week ago I would have not imagined an infestation of frogs to be all that bad, but I just about jumped out of my theater seat to see all those slimy amphibians crawling over everything! Yuck! Then there came all manner of flies, more flies than I have ever seen even in Alaska. We saw the movie in 3-D, and we were recoiling and trying to get out of the swarm. The plagues are very well done by the cinematographer.

Exodus: Gods and Kings brings out a theological point: During the Ten Plagues, a lot of people suffered greatly. According to the narrative in Exodus, Pharaoh suffered because he refused to let the Israelites go. Ridley Scott makes the point that many common Egyptians suffered as well, through no fault of their own. What kind of god would strike dead all the first-born sons? Modern Christians continue to feel uncomfortable about these episodes, and we debate various resolutions. Generally we conclude that Jesus doesn’t do things that way any more, and we follow Jesus.

God as a Petulant British Boy

God Almighty is portrayed in Exodus: Gods and Kings as a boy about 8 years old with a British accent. I can accept God speaking to Elijah as a “still, small voice” in 1 Kings 19. I believe that God became incarnate in the baby Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem. But the surly attitude of the God-boy in this movie was jarring, and I was left wondering why Moses would accept the commands from such a manifestation of the Almighty. At least the boy should have had more gravitas, and should have spoken to Moses with graceful majesty. Was Morgan Freeman not available?

Goblins and Chariots

There is a scene in The Hobbitt: An Unexpected Journey where Gandalf and the dwarves kill the Great Goblin and escape from the underground goblin kingdom. When my family watches this sequence at home, we usually keep a body count of goblins, yelling out the numbers as they fall. Our total usually comes out to about 140.

During the pursuit of Moses by the Egyptian army, Rameses II charges with all his chariots down a narrow mountain road after the fleeing Israelites. Naturally some careless chariot driver careens off the edge and tumbles down the mountain. Then another chariot hits a rock, and within a few moments there is a huge landslide about 30 chariots behind Pharaoh, and all the remaining vehicles in the column either tumble to their tragic and untimely deaths, or are blocked by the now-impassable road. So – Rameses is left with about 30 chariots out of the 1,000 that departed the Egyptian capital. 400,000 Israelites ought to be able to make quick work of them.

But when Pharaoh reaches the beach somehow all his 1,000 chariots have miraculously re-appeared. Someone was not counting properly! Yeah, I know it’s just a movie. But I was chuckling over the movie’s continuity error while still enjoying the action. And the action in Exodus: Gods and Kings is superb!

Crossing the Red Sea at Nuweiba, not the Straits of Tiran

At one point Moses brings out a hand-written map showing his planned route from Egypt back to his wife Zipporah in Midian. Maybe nobody else in the audience cared, but I instantly recognized the route after studying that geography for five years. Moses, generations of biblical scholars would gladly trade several chapters of Leviticus for just one glance at your map! The traditional route of the Exodus is generally agreed, but there are other proposals.

Between Migdol and the Sea (Drews 2014) Figure 11-1 with lines added in cyan showing routes from the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). Copyright 2014 by Carl Drews.

My book Between Migdol and the Sea (Drews, 2014) provides a map of the Sinai peninsula in Chapter 11 (right). The traditional route is marked here in red and green. In Ridley Scott’s Exodus, Moses plans to take the cyan (light blue) route down the west coast of Sinai and cross the Straits of Tiran (dotted cyan). But he takes a detour through the Sinai mountains and gets stuck at Nuweiba instead (solid cyan). In the movie the Israelites cross the Red Sea from Nuweiba over to modern Saudi Arabia.

There are a couple of problems with this scenario. An earlier scene shows Moses splashing across the “Straits of Tiran” on his way to meet Zipporah. But this strait in real life is not like Adam’s Bridge across the Palk Strait from India to Sri Lanka, oh no! The Enterprise Passage in the Straits of Tiran today is 250 meters (820 feet) deep.[Between Migdol and the Sea, page 179] Nobody will be splashing across there.

The underwater ridge at Nuweiba is 765 meters (2,510 feet) deep.[Migdol, page 179] That would be quite a hike.

How Not to Communicate Science

This little vignette was actually pretty funny, especially for me. Rameses is getting understandably tired of the Plagues, and he calls in various advisors to learn how to stop the plagues, or at least to predict when they will end. Bad advice results in immediate execution. One of these advisors is a Scientist who has not taken the seminar on How to Communicate Science. He gleefully launches into a technical discussion of how the crocodiles churned up the water and made it turn red, how all that extra sediment caused the fish to die and the frogs to multiply. Rameses knows this already and scowls at Scientist, wondering when he’s going to come to the point. “And what comes next?” asks the Scientist happily. “Flies!” retorts Rameses in disgust, swatting at the hundreds of flies swarming around him. “Yes!” answers the Scientist, obviously pleased that his students are following the lecture.

The next shot shows the Scientist on the scaffold about to be executed.

In science communication we talk about Framing the Message. Framing means to go beyond the facts; your audience wants to know why these facts matter and how they are relevant to their own concerns. In climate science, a government audience wants to know how society will be affected, not just how many degrees the temperature will increase.

Meteorite and Tsunami

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, the parting of the Red Sea is accomplished by a flaming meteorite that falls into the sea beyond the horizon. This impact causes a tsunami in which the sea draws back for the Israelites to cross, then returns in a giant wave while the Egyptian chariots pursue. In the movie God sends the meteorite at the right place and time for Moses to lead his people across, so of course this is full-on theistic astronomy. Ridley Scott does not fall into the “God of the Gaps” fallacy that seems to plague certain atheist bloggers! Good for him.

The Bible says the east wind drove back the water all night long (Exodus 14:20-21). But would a meteorite impact also work? The answer is: not likely. For the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Indonesia, there were three huge waves over 1.5 hours. The wave period from drawback through the return surge was about 30 minutes. There have been some tsunamis with a longer wave period, but the basic wave cycle is measured in tens of minutes, not hours. At the Nuweiba crossing Moses and the Israelites would have to descend 2,500 vertical feet and then crank up the other side back to sea level, all in 30 minutes. The Colorado Mountain Club uses 1,000 feet per hour as a rule of thumb when climbing fourteeners (Between Migdol and the Sea, page 166). A tsunami simply does not provide enough time to make the crossing.

But the wave action is spectacular! Exodus: Gods and Kings does action very well.

Go see it!

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God’s role in crossing the Red Sea

Certain bloggers have begun to misrepresent my religious views on how God works through science and the natural forces. It’s time to post a clear statement (again).

Exodus 14:20-21 states:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
(Exodus 14:21 ESV)

We may summarize the Exodus passage as follows:
1. God sent the east wind.
2. The wind moved the water.

Part 1 is the realm of Theology since it involves Divine action. I would love to know if God used a low-pressure system here, but without further description I cannot tell.

Part 2 is the realm of Science. Wind moving water is what the COAWST ocean model calculates, and this is what I published in PLoS ONE in 2010.

If anyone wishes to replace Part 1 with a scientific statement and hypothesize how Moses knew where to stand at just the right time, they are free to submit a manuscript to their favorite scientific journal. Since the Bible says God sent the wind, I’ll stick with Part 1 as stated.

For readers of Funmurphys: the Blog who wish to know how God works through science, I recommend the following books:

“Finding Darwin’s God” by Kenneth Miller.
“The Language of God” by Francis Collins.
Anything by Karl Giberson.

These three Christians (and others) receive harsh criticism from Young-Earth Creationists and New Atheists alike. I am proud to be in their august company in one small way.

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