Did the Red Sea Really Split?

In the Hagadah, Jews everywhere chant the “Dyenu” (It would have been enough!) song. Let me give you one of my favorite stanzas that I translated for my students one year:

The Red Sea truly split in half

When Moses raised his mighty staff,

But if no sea had split in half, then dyenu!

This of course raises an interesting question: Did Moses’ mighty staff magically or supernaturally cause the sea to split as commonly portrayed in the movies? Or let us ask in more precise terms: How did the Sea of Reeds actually split? What are the clues of the text?

Details of the biblical story indicate that the splitting of the sea was facilitated by a strong east wind. Intrabiblical criticism suggests that other natural forces played a significant role as well. By the term “intrabiblical,” we mean other biblical passages that elucidate and amplify earlier scriptural narratives, e.g., Passage A expounds Passage B.

The first commentaries of the Bible were not Rashi, Ramban, or Ibn Ezra, or even the Targum; rather, the other biblical writers served as expositors. It follows that the exodus out of Egypt occurred as a direct result of a massive earthquake that devastated Egypt. The “death of the firstborn” in Egypt could fit this description, for as Rashi observes, “firstborn” could mean ‘preeminent,” hence, it alludes to the “flower of Egypt.” An earthquake could also explain how the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds since it was probably an aftershock that produced a low tide.[1]

Although the ancients were not historians in the modern sense of the term (for the first “modern” historian begins with Herodotus), they nevertheless transmitted ancestral memory through its poetry (e.g., the Odyssey). Consider the following biblical text:

With your arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
The waters saw you, God;
the waters saw you and lashed about,
trembled even to their depths.

The clouds poured down their rains;
the thunderheads rumbled;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
The thunder of your chariot wheels resounded;
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.

Psalms 77:16-19

Personally, I have never believed or accepted supernatural interpretations; Jewish exegetes like Maimonides and Gersonides, stress how God typically utilizes natural law to achieve His purpose. Such an attitude allows for a more modern interpretation that does not strain the imagination. After all, the Torah speaks in the language of people, and language also includes poetry and hyperbole–the metaphors of our text.

Similar occurrences have been known to occur throughout history. From the works of the classical sources we learn that Alexander the Great, exploited a similar natural phenomena that enabled his men to ambush the more powerful Persian forces when he found a passage through the Pamphylian Sea in his conquest of the Persian Empire.[2] Once this occurs, human history changes forever. Isn’t it amazing how nature plays a decisive roll in how battles are ultimately determined?

Roman historian Livy records how the winds drove back the waters of the lagoon which enabled Scipio Africanis to capture New Carthage.[3]  Clericus in his commentary on the Pentateuch, also records a similar incident in the Engish-Dutch war in the year 1672. At that time,  the waters recessed at an extraordinary ebb and this natural phenomena  prevented the English from overtaking the Dutch armies.

Human history is often shaped by odd meteorological conditions.



[1] Cf. Judg. 5:4–5; Pss. 114:3–6; Hab. 3:3–6.

[2] Antiquities 2.348.

William Whiston writes in his notes to Josephus:

“Take here the original passages of the four old authors that still remain, as to this transit of Alexander the Great over the Pamphylian Sea: I mean of Callisthenes, Strabo, Arrian, and Appian. As to Callisthenes, who himself accompanied Alexander in this expedition, Eustathius, in his Notes on the third Iliad of Homer, (As Dr. Bernard here informs us) says, That “this Callisthenes wrote how the Pamphylian Sea did not only open a passage for Alexander, but, by rising and elevating its waters, did pay him homage as its king.” Strabo’s account is this (Geog. 14.666): “Now about Phaselis is that narrow passage, by the seaside, through which Alexander led his army. There is a mountain called Climax, which adjoins to the Sea of Pamphylia, leaving a narrow passage on the shore, which in calm weather is bare, so as to be passable by travellers; but when the sea overflows it is covered to a great degree by the waves.

Now then, the ascent by the mountains being round about and steep, in still weather they make use of the road along the coast; but Alexander fell into the winter season, and committing himself chiefly to fortune, he marched on before the waves retired; and so it happened that they were a whole day in journeying over it, and were under water up to the navel.” Arrian’s account is this, (1.72–73): “When Alexander removed from Phaselis, he sent some part of his army over the mountains to Perga; which road the Thracians showed him. A difficult way it was, but short. However he himself conducted those that were with him by the seashore.

This road is impassible at any other time, than when the north wind blows; but if the south wind prevail there is no passing by the shore. Now at this time, after strong south winds, a north wind blew; and that not without the Divine Providence (as both he and they that were with him supposed) and afforded him an easy and quick passage.” Appian, when he compares Caesar and Alexander together (De Bel. Civil 2.522) says, “That they both depended on their boldness and fortune, as much as on their skill in war. As an instance of which, Alexander journeyed over a country without water in the heat of summer, to the oracle of [Jupiter] Hammon, and quickly passed over the Bay of Pamphylia, when by Divine Providence, the sea was cut off:—thus Providence restraining the sea on his account, as it had sent him rain when he travelled [over the desert].”N.B.—Since, in the days of Josephus, as he assures us, all the more numerous original historians of Alexander gave the account he has here set down, as to the providential going back of the waters of the Pamphylian Sea, when he was going with his army to destroy the Persian monarchy, which the forenamed authors now remaining fully confirm, it is without all just foundation that Josephus is here blamed by some late writers for quoting those ancient authors upon the present occasion; nor can the reflections of Plutarch, or any other author later than Josephus, be in the least here alleged to contradict him. Josephus went by all the evidence he then had, and that evidence of the most authentic sort also. So that whatever the moderns may think of the thing itself, there is hence not the least color for finding fault with Josephus; he would rather have been much to blame had he omitted these quotations.”

[3] Livy, History of Rome 26:45


  1. Squall  February 10, 2013

    Rav Samuel, whether a “meteorological condition” or a supernatural event split the sea, you did not answer the question : Did God do it ? Or the hebrews got lucky ?

    I find it difficult to understand how a rabbi can write something like “maybe an earthquake killed some egyptians and that would also explain how they crossed the see of reeds on foot”. It is based on absolutely nothing but (your) imagination.

    • admin  February 11, 2013

      It is difficult to argue that the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds exactly as it is described for many reasons. If two and a half-million people crossed the Sea of Reeds, such a crossing would have taken approximately six weeks for that many people to cross; of course, if you believe that God magically teleported the people, then I have nothing further to say. However, I do not believe that such a large number of Israelites actually left Egypt–and many biblical scholars think that maybe 5,000 to 10,000 left altogether. I realize this is not your typical Orthodox response, but it is truthful. You are free to differ!


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