Red Sea's parting plausible, study says

March 15, 1992|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,Los Angeles Times

Sophisticated computer calculations indicate that the parting of the Red Sea, said in the Bible to have allowed Moses and the Israelites to escape from bondage in Egypt, could have occurred precisely as described.

Because of the peculiar geography of the northern end of the Red Sea, researchers report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society dated today that a moderate wind blowing constantly for about 10 hours could have caused the sea to recede about a mile and the water level to drop 10 feet. That would have left dry land in the area where many biblical scholars believe the crossing occurred.

An abrupt change in the wind then would have allowed the waters to come crashing back into the area in a few brief moments, a phenomenon that the Bible says inundated the Israelites' pursuers.

This explanation "should not affect the religious aspects of the Exodus," wrote meteorologist Nathan Paldor of the University of Rhode Island and oceanographer Doron Nof of Florida State University. "Some may even find our proposed mechanism to be a supportive argument for the original biblical description of this event."

Although few religious scholars or scientists are familiar with the report yet, oceanographer Gabriel Csanady of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., said the new scenario was "very plausible." Mr. Csanady was one of the reviewers who recommended publication of the report in the Bulletin.

The Israelites' flight is described in the second chapter of the Book of Exodus: "The Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground."

Most scholars agree that the Israelites did not cross the Red Sea itself, but the Gulf of Suez, which is a northern extension of the sea.

The crossing probably occurred at the northern end of the gulf, around the site of the modern town of Suez.

Mr. Paldor, who is on sabbatical in Rhode Island from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he became interested in the problem because of his acquaintance with the biblical descriptions and because it is an "interesting, unsolved problem in physical oceanography.

"The problem consists of simple physical laws -- which are very well-known -- and a very complicated set of equations that describe what happens to the water when the wind acts on it."

His and Mr. Nof's contribution, he said, was to simplify the equations so that the calculations could be performed in a reasonable amount of time and without the need for an expensive supercomputer.

What they found was that the geographical configuration of the gulf makes its parting physically possible. Because the gulf is so long and shallow, Mr. Nof said, "the wind can lift a lot of water. It's like blowing across the top of a cup of coffee. The coffee blows from one end of the cup to the other."

Also important, they noted, is that the other end of the gulf is connected to a large body of water, the Red Sea itself.

That sea can accommodate the water from the gulf without its level rising significantly.

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