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Studies and Research
The Passage of the Red Sea is the account of the march of Moses and the Israelites on their escape out of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea as described in the Biblical Exodus, chapters 13:17 to 15:12.
The narrative according to the Book of Exodus (13:17-15:12):
Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, has finally agreed to allow the Israelite slaves to leave Egypt peacefully, after a series of "plagues" is visited upon the Egyptians by God, working through Moses and Aaron. God instructs Moses to lead them out, not "by way of the land of the Philistines", but by the Red Sea wilderness. Guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, they travel from Succoth to Etham, "on the edge of the wilderness," where they make their encampment.
But it is not God's intention that the Israelites should leave Egypt without hindrance: "I will become glorified through Pharaoh and his entire army ... and Egypt shall know that I am the LORD." God therefore has Moses turn the Israelites back again and camp "in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon." There they see the Egyptians and become frightened, but God commands Moses: "Raise your staff; stretch your hand over the sea and split it. The Children of Israel will come into the Sea on dry ground. I am even now strengthening the heart of Egypt, and they will come after them..." The angel of God and the pillar of cloud moves between the Israelites and the Egyptians, separating them, and "neither one approached the other all night long." God sends "a strong east wind all night," and next morning the Israelites enter the sea "on dry ground, and the water was like a wall to them on their right and on their left." The Egyptians follow, but God clogs the wheels of their chariots (or removes their chariot-wheels), and "Egypt said, 'I will flee from before Israel, for the LORD is fighting with Egypt on their behalf.'" Then God commands Moses to stretch out his rod again, and "The waters returned, and covered the chariots and the horsemen of Pharaoh's entire army, who were coming after them in the Sea; not one of them remained." Chapter 14 concludes: "On that day, the LORD saved Israel from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw Egypt dead upon the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD had used against Egypt, and the people feared the LORD; they had faith in the LORD and in His servant Moses."
Verses 1-18 of chapter 15 constitute the "Song of the Sea", described as the song of rejoicing sung by Moses and the people of Israel. Being poetic rather than descriptive it lacks a plot, but some key elements can be picked out: "The LORD... has become my salvation; ... The LORD is a man of war; ... Pharaoh's chariots and his army He cast into the sea; and his select officers are drowned in the Red Sea ... At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up, ... The peoples have heard, they tremble; ... Now are the chiefs of Edom confounded; the leaders of Moab, ... all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away ... they are as still as stone, till Your people, LORD, pass by, ... You will bring them in, and plant them on the mountain of Your heritage, ... The LORD will reign for ever and ever." Verses 20 and 21 begin a repetition of the song, this time from the mouth of Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses, but it is cut short at the second line.
The most precise information on the site of the crossing is provided at Exodus 14:2, where God says to Moses: "Speak to the Children of Israel, and have them turn back and encamp before Pi-Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon; you shall encamp opposite it, by the sea." All three names appear to be Hebrew rather than Egyptian. The meaning of "Pi-hahiroth" is unknown, although pi means "mouth" and ha is the definite article; "Migdol" and "Baal-zephon" mean "watchtower" and "Lord of the North" respectively. None of the three have been located, despite considerable effort.
In the absence of any identification of Pi-hahiroth, speculation has centred on the general rather than exact place where the crossing was made. The body of opinion is that it was on the Gulf of Suez near the present city of Suez, although some believe the crossing happened on the Gulf of Aqaba, and this belief is not without archaeological evidence.
There is a theory that this incident did not happen in the Red Sea but the Israelites went along the enclosing spit of the Sabħat al Bardawīl (a large lagoon on the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula), trying to evade pursuers. If so, Baal-zephon would be a known tell beside a gap in that spit, and the sea recession and surge would be a rise and fall of a few feet caused by wind. Some say that here the army of the Egyptians, with their heavy chariots, got bogged down and somehow drowned. See also Mistranslation theory below.
The Biblical view of the Israelites' escape from Pharoah and his chariots says Moses, on God's instructions, stretched out his rod to divide the waters in two great walls which God holds open to allow the Israelites to pass, and then causes to collapse upon the Egyptians (Exodus 14:22,29).
Notwithstanding this, there have been considerable and varied attempts to find a non-supernatural origin for the story. Some of the more popular include a tsunami produced by the explosion of a volcano on the islands of Thera (a small, circular group of volcanic islands located in southern Aegean Sea, about 200 km south-east from Greece's mainland) around 1550-1500BC or 1650-1600BC (the date is contentious), with the retreating waters allowing the Israelites to pass and then returning to drown the Egyptians, or a wind drying out a shallow lake somewhere near the head of the Red Sea, around the Reed Sea so that the Israelites could cross on foot but the Egyptian chariots could not follow.
Despite the traditional wording used in English texts of Exodus, some feel that 'Red Sea' is not actually referred to in the Hebrew text. The Hebrew refers to 'Yam suph', Yam means "sea," and suph is generally thought to mean "reeds," "rushes" or possibly "seaweed." The Sea of Reeds or "Reed Sea" was a significantly smaller, marshy body of swampwater to the north of the Red Sea. If the Jewish people were chased through the Sea of Reeds, some feel the Egyptians could have either lost track of them through the swamp or, as the second link below suggests, their chariots or horses could have been bogged down in the mud.The Yam Suph: Red Sea or Sea of Reeds? - Christian theologian discusses mistranslation possibility