The Jewish people numbered many thousands (see: The number of the Jews); they owned two-wheeled wagons pulled by pairs of oxen (Numbers 7,3-9), herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. On the move the wagons formed an endless column and the herds were scattered around it for miles since they had to be grazed along the way. To guide and coordinate the movements of such a mass posed a serious problem. Moses solved it in a simple manner, which presumably was common in those times: at the head of the column on the move, a large brazier of burning bitumen was placed on a wagon. A column of dense smoke arose from it which could be seen from a great distance, thus serving as a beacon during the march. At night the glow of the fire in the brazier served the same purpose (Ex. 13,21).
The Egyptian troops followed the Jews from a distance, so naturally they also followed the movements of the brazier. This was an important part of Moses' plan; from Exodus 14,19-20, it becomes evident that the brazier must have played a very important part during the night of the Red Sea crossing.
After a fifteen-day journey (the Jewish people could not cover more than 14-16 kilometers a day, and in any case they had to stop in order to water their herds), on the day of the new moon, Moses set up camp on the shore of the Red Sea facing the sand banks, the existence of which he alone knew and which were hidden at the moment since high tide was then at its maximum.
The Egyptian troops camped on a high point, well in sight of the Jewish encampment, but too far away to notice what was going on there during the night. This was obviously an essential condition for the success of his plan, so Moses must have worked out something that compelled the Egyptians not to set up camp too close by. From the account this is easy to grasp: at one of the previous stops the Egyptians had evidently camped in the immediate vicinity of the brazier (Ex. 14,24).
Moses must have organized an incursion into their encampment to block the wheels of their war chariots (Ex.14,25), perhaps by filling the hubs with sand. Following this incident, the commanding officer of the Egyptian detachment must have instituted a series of elementary security measures, preventing being taken again by surprise. The most logical step would have been to set up camp at a greater distance from the Jews and to post sentries (Ex.14,25). He probably adopted these measures that evening.
Moses had seen to it that the brazier was placed well in sight, behind the Jewish camp on the desert side facing the Egyptians, but screening the Jewish camp with it in such a way that the Egyptians could not see what was going on (Ex. 14,19-20). Night fell (Ex. 14,21; Dt. 16,1), a dark moonless night (Ex. 14,20). As soon as it was dark, the Jews broke camp. They assembled all their household goods and chattel, their flocks and herds; they readied everything for the march, then awaited orders.
A breeze sprang up (Ex. 14,21), the usual night breeze, quite steady in that season, enough to ripple the surface of the sea. The tide began to turn. On the shore, Moses, surrounded by the tribal elders, was waiting tensely. The tide was dropping. At last the miracle occurred: slowly a slender tongue of sand emerged from the waters.
The waves raised by the night breeze broke along the edges of the sand bank on both sides. In the whitish foam myriads of microscopic organisms flitted and darted, giving off a weak light, sufficient to mark the way ahead in the utter darkness. It was certainly forbidden to light torches or fires of any sort during the crossing, in order not to arouse the suspicions of the Egyptians before necessary.
It must have been about one a.m. when the order to start was given; the Jews moved swiftly into the Red Sea in ordered and silent columns, urging their livestock ahead of them.
In the Egyptian camp, in the meantime, most were sleeping. The sentries could faintly hear the lowing of cattle and the frenzied barking of dogs, borne on the breeze--unusual. The Egyptians grew slightly nervous. But the great brazier was still there, flaming, immobile--no cause for alarm.
At about two-thirty a.m. the great brazier suddenly began to move. The commanding officer, who had been awakened, hurried to see: yes, it was really moving--towards the sea and quickly, too. Very strange! He ordered the troops awake and followed this with an order to be ready to move as soon as possible. In the meantime he watched the movements of the brazier; sooner or later it would be at the shore and would have to turn left or right; that would be the moment when he would move to intercept the column.
It was past three a.m.; the troops were ready to move. The brazier continued its movement in the same direction, it seemed to be...in the sea! The Commanding officer was jittery: he ordered the advance. It was pitch dark and he needed almost an hour to reach the seashore. The brazier was still moving away, seemingly in the middle of the sea. Of the Jews, their tents, their wagons, and of the thousands of head of livestock, not a single trace. The Egyptian Commander was stupefied, confused, agitated. What was happening? He continued to follow the light of the brazier; when he reached the seashore, an unexpected and incredible scene appeared in the weak first light of the dawn: a long stretch of sand connected the two shores, little more than five kilometers apart. At the center, the Jews' brazier was hurrying towards the far bank. He gave a cry of anger and without thinking twice, rushed into the chase, followed by his troops, along the narrow sand bank, which at that time began to shrink. The tide was coming in rapidly. The Egyptians spurred their horses on, riding desperately. They had already reached the center of the gulf, when the last vestige of the sand bank disappeared beneath the rising tide. Then disaster struck!
On the other shore, upright upon a rock, Moses surveyed the scene. The sun was rising at his back (Ex. 14,27). He watched, grinning, at the horses as they struggled in the waters, and he saw the soldiers drowning, dragged down by their armor. The plan he had worked upon so meticulously for years had at last borne fruit. He had foreseen every detail. His heart swelled with pride, and with good reason! The brilliance and audacity of the concept, the complexity of the operation, the meticulous planning required and the brilliant and decisive execution of it, all this has no equal in History.
The son of unknown parents, a stutterer, wanted for murder, having nothing but his genius and audacity, had dared to challenge the most powerful sovereign of those times, managing to take from him an entire population with all its wealth and, what is more, to destroy a large part of what was then the most powerful army in the world. All this by making use of nothing more than the elements of Nature.
No man ever dared to conceive and accomplish a risky venture such as this one. The slightest miscalculation, one false move, and the great adventure could have become a great tragedy. I like to think that not a single goat was lost!
This reconstruction, deliberately presented as a news item, is by no means hypothetical, and still less fanciful. The main reason why modern Scriptural Scholarship rejects an effective historical content of the Exodus narrative is that the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea, in the manner described, is presumed to be impossible.
In fact, at first sight the crossing appears to be so completely outside the bounds of possibility, that all the scholars have rejected it out of hand, preferring to dedicate their research to other alternatives. However, a more detailed examination of the question reveals this dogma to be hurried and unjustified. Surprisingly, in fact, the only method we can adopt to provide a rational explanation of this episode is that we not reject one single piece of evidence given in the Bible. Of course the Bible relates the facts as they were experienced and understood by the people involved; they were unable to provide a rational explanation of what happened and, therefore, could only attribute it to divine intervention. But they must have reported the facts in a true and precise manner. The essential facts of their story are these: The Jews crossed over in the midst of a real sea, having water both on their left and on their right (Ex.14,22). The sea in question was the Red Sea, that is, that branch now known as the Gulf of Suez, not the Mediterranean or any other stretch of water, as is often to be read; they crossed the sea by night, a moonless night, and, therefore, it was the time of the new moon (Ex. 14.20; Dt. 16,1); before and during the crossing, a stiff breeze sprang up (Ex. 14,21); the Egyptian troops rushed to the chase at first light, following the same route as the Jews, but they were engulfed by the waters before they could pass over (Ex. 14,23; 14,27); the bodies of the drowned soldiers were carried by the current onto the strand (Ex. 14,30).
These are the main points of the biblical narrative, which are repeated and confirmed time and time again in a wide range of contexts. They must, therefore, be the facts exactly as they happened. On the basis of this narrative, there are no alternatives to the scene just previously described.
Moses' escape plan had to be based upon elements about which he was absolutely certain; it is unreasonable to suppose that he could or would count on accidental happenings beyond the norm. Not one of the Jewish tribal chiefs would have been prepared to risk the lives of his people and his own by following Moses just in the hope that one day or another a wind would arise strong enough to dry up the Red Sea or any other stretch of water... and that such a wind would last just long enough to allow his people to cross, graciously dying down as soon as the inevitable pursuers reached the middle of the crossing. This is a widely spread theory, but it is quite absurd.
In order to solve the problem it is necessary to begin with a question: why did Moses lead the Jewish people across that particular sea? It was certainly not the normal route to Palestine, neither was it the shortest or the easiest (Ex. 13,17-18). There must have been a precise and very important reason for it. What was it? The final effect of the Red Sea crossing was the annihilation of the pursuing Egyptians. Therefore, it follows that the reason Moses led his people across the Red Sea must have been to liberate them from the Egyptian forces.
The fact that the Egyptian troops were tailing the Jews from the beginning of their journey is obvious from the narrative. Exodus 14,8 states explicitly that "the Pharaoh began the pursuit of the Israelites while these went out [from Pi-Rameses] with hands raised,” that is, from the first day of the Exodus. Exodus verses 14,20 and 14, 24-26 demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt that during the journey the Egyptians regularly set up camp in the vicinity of the Jewish encampment. The Jews took the women, children, and elderly with them, plus their herds and household goods. Their movements were slow and awkward; they were unarmed and had no experience whatsoever with war, while the Egyptian troops with their chariots were infinitely more powerful and swift.
Thus, there was not the slightest possible hope of escape, unless these troops were in some way removed. In fact, when the Jews realized they were being followed they were filled with dismay; in order to induce them to proceed, Moses had to assure them that the Lord himself would intervene to destroy the Egyptian soldiers (Ex. 14,10-14). There could have been only one reason for the decision to cross the Red Sea and that was to eliminate the Egyptian surveillance.
Moses alone was responsible for creating and executing this plan, but it is simply unthinkable that he could really have had the power to divide the waters of the sea. Therefore, he must have had knowledge of some Red Sea phenomenon that existed at that time but does not happen now. The epoch in which these events occurred is very important to this analysis: it was said to be in the third or fourth year of the reign of Merenptah, towards the end of the 13th century BC, more than three thousand years ago.
So, what was different then, compared to modern times? A seemingly insignificant fact: the sea levels all over the Earth (and therefore also in the Red Sea) were 4 or 5 meters lower than they are today, due to remaining Pleistocene ice that persisted here and there. A glance at a nautical chart (see following fig) permits us to understand the significance of this fact.
The Suez Bay, at the extreme northern end of the Red Sea is, so to speak, obstructed by a line of sand banks running from point Ras el-Adabiya on the western side and East-North-East towards the opposite shore. It is a more or less continuous cordon (now broken by a canal which has been dredged to allow navigation), with a depth of no more than 6 or 7 meters. In Moses' time that same line of sand banks, “anchored” to a series of barely emerging rocks, was probably only a couple meters below the surface, perhaps even less. It is quite likely that at maximum low tide they emerged, making it possible to cross the bay from one shore to the other--even by heavy transport, since the Red Sea's sand is very compact.
It was a desert area, frequented only by an occasional passing Bedouin. This phenomenon could only occur at maximum high and low tide, when the moon and the sun are in conjunction--during the new moons. Since this phenomenon had scant practical value, probably no one prior to Moses bothered to establish its cause, duration, or recurrence.
Moses must have come to know this phenomenon during his flight into the Sinai (Ex. 2,15); it must have impressed him so much as to induce his return year after year in order to study it more thoroughly. It should not have been difficult for him to understand the mechanics of it, closely bound as it was to the lunar phases and solar movements. In order to complete his plan Moses had to know the day and hour in which the sand banks would emerge, and the hour in which they would again disappear.
Some collateral factors that he had certainly taken into account assumed very important significance. The moonless night, for example, allowed the Jews to move without being seen, but could also present a serious obstacle to their march across the sand banks--except, the warm waters of the Red Sea teemed with luminescent organisms, excited by the strong nocturnal breeze and breaking waves, which traced out the route without need of artificial light. The wind, therefore, without having any influence whatsoever on the tide, assumed a fundamental importance.
Once we accept that the sand banks in the Suez Bay emerged during the lowest tides, it becomes relatively easy to grasp the essentials of Moses' plan. If we follow faithfully the indications in the Bible, aware that every single minute detail of the narrative has been handed down strictly in accordance with its importance, and must, therefore, have a precise rational explanation, it becomes clear.
To conclude: the Jews crossed the Red Sea along the sand banks of the Suez Bay, a distance of little more than 5 kilometers. Since they were unaware of the mechanics that made this possible, it must have seemed to them a most extraordinary miracle. In the darkness of the night they could just glimpse the waters, thanks to the weak micro-organic luminescence and the whiteness of the breaking waves; the optical illusion of two walls of water on either side must have been perfect. One wonders how terrified they must have been as they made that crossing!
The Egyptians rushed in along the same route. Moses must have calculated the exact moment. He had estimated their reaction time and the period they required to prepare for action. He had also calculated the time required to go from the high ground to the seashore. He had ordered the brazier moved at precisely the correct moment; it was essential that the Egyptians be in the middle of the gulf when the high tide would resubmerge the sand banks.
By dawn the Egyptians would have covered the 5 kilometers that separated the two shores in no more than half an hour. The success of Moses' entire plan and the destiny of the Jewish people depended upon that crucial half hour.
If the Egyptians had arrived at the bay too early, they would have been in time to reach the far shore; if too late, they would have found the sand banks already submerged, in which case they would have rounded the gulf and reached the Jews after several hours. In either case the reprisals would have been terrible. Israel would have paid a high price for the attempt, and for Moses and his companions it would have been the end.
It was a very great risk, well calculated but with a safety margin of only ten or fifteen minutes, albeit probably lengthened by precautionary measures such as various obstacles spread along the second half of the route to slow down the Egyptian chariots.
However it is viewed, this was an enterprise of breath-taking audacity. Moses pulled it off; the Egyptian army was annihilated. The bodies of the drowned troops were spread along the shores of the Red Sea for many kilometers (Ex. 14,30), tangible evidence of the power of Jahweh and of his earthly spokesman Moses.
The Jews were free to go on their way undisturbed through the desert, towards a new life and a new destiny.
Aerial picture of the Suez Bay. At the center the headland Ras Adabiah from where the Jews started to cross the Red Sea
Nautical map of Suez Bay. The shoals through which the Jews crossed the sea are in full evidence
A detail of the Peutingeryan tables, the great road map of the roman empire, drawn in the fourth century c.e. It clearly shows that the Jews crossed the Red Sea through the Suez Bay.
Detail of the map of Yaaqov ben Abraham (Zaddiq) (Amsterdam 1621), showing the crossing of the Red Sea through Suez Bay
Detail of the map of Ortelius (Antwerpen 1570), showing the crossing of the Red Sea through the Suez Bay
Map of Jan Janssonius (Amsterdam, 1631), one out of many representing the crossing of the Red Sea through the Suez Bay
Moses splits the water of the Red Sea (detail from the map of Jan Janssonius, Amsterdam, 1631)
The Egyptian chariots swept away by the waters of the Red Sea (detail from the map of Jan Janssonius, Amsterdam, 1631)
Detail of the map of Christian von Adrichom (Koln 1590) showing the crossing of the Red Sea through the shoals of the Suez Bay
Detail of the map of John Speed (London 1611)
The crossing of the Red Sea according to Philip Briet (Paris 1641)