Was the mythical parting of the Red Sea triggered by Moses' outstretched hand or an unusual chain of perfectly natural causes? Or both?
And does it matter?
Russian researchers recently took a stab at explaining one of the Bible's most famous miracles. Their version of events describes how a strong, persistent wind and an underlying reef may have made the feat possible.
The research follows a long line of efforts by science scholars to prove religious miracles from claims of sighting the ruins of Noah's Ark to attributing the biblical "trumpet blast" from Mt. Sinai as volcanic activity. Some argue such explanations diminish the concept of miracles while others say they reinforce their power.
A Good Wind and Good Timing
In the latest attempt to lend scientific credence to a supernatural event, Naum Volzinger, a senior researcher at St. Petersburg's Institute of Oceanography, and Alexei Androsov, a colleague based in Hamburg, Germany, analyzed conditions that could have made the parting of the Red Sea possible.
As the biblical story goes: "And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided."
Volzinger and Androsov calculated that a wind blowing at the speed of 67 miles per hour sustained overnight could have exposed a reef that existed close below the ocean surface. The Israelites could have then fled over the passage before the wind died down and waters rose again, blocking the way for pursuing Egyptian soldiers in their wheeled chariots.
Volzinger explains that some 3,500 years ago, the reef would have been closer to the water's surface so it would have been exposed for just the right amount of time.
"It would take the Jews … four hours to cross the 7-kilometer reef that runs from one coast to another," Volzinger told The Moscow Times. "Then, in half an hour, the waters would come back."
A miracle? Perhaps. Great timing? Certainly, argues Colin Humphreys, a physicist at Cambridge University in England and author of the book, The Miracles of Exodus.
"I still say they're miracles," Humphreys said. "But I think the miracle is in the timing."
Humphreys has used similar calculations to explain the parting of the Red Sea, although he places the event in a slightly different location along the shore. Other scholars have argued that the name Red Sea has been mistranslated over the centuries from Hebrew and the name yam suph, or "Sea of Reeds" actually refers to a marshy, inland lake, which would have been easier to cross than a sea.
Humphreys traveled to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba of the Red Sea to settle the matter and found that reeds still grow there today due to the freshwater flow of mountain springs. The so-called "Sea of Reeds," he concluded, could therefore refer to the Red Sea.
He then set out to explain another well-known miracle — the burning bush — that the Bible reports "did not burn up" as Moses heard God talking to him through it. While hiking in Israel, Humphreys happened to step on a volcanic vent.
"It nearly burned my shoe," he said.
One of the most common bushes in the region is the acacia bush, says Humphreys, a bramble that is known for making good charcoal. If a vent happened to spew hot gasses under an acacia bush, he argues, it could have alighted and appeared to have burned without end.