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.
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.
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.