The dramatic parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites is perhaps the most spectacular miracle described in the Old Testament.
Now scientists believe it may actually have happened – although it owed more to Mother Nature than to Moses.
A computer simulation suggests that a powerful east wind, blowing for 12 hours overnight, could have driven back shallow waters for four hours allowing a crossing in an area near that depicted in Exodus.
In the biblical account, which was given the Hollywood treatment in Charlton Heston’s epic The Ten Commandments, Moses and the Israelites were trapped between the Pharaoh’s advancing chariots and the sea.
Thanks to divine intervention, a mighty east wind blows all night, splitting the waters to leave a passage of dry land with walls of water on both sides.
Other theories to explain the parting of the Red Sea
Several previous theories have been put forward to explain the parting of the Red Sea.
One involved a tsunami, which can cause a body of water to retreat and then advance rapidly.
But such an event would not have caused the gradual overnight divide of the waters as described in the Bible, or been so associated with winds.
Other experts have focused on a phenomenon linked to strong persistent winds known as ‘wind setdown’ which can lower water levels in one area while piling up water downwind.
One study found that winds blowing from the north-west at a near-hurricane force of 74mph could in theory have exposed an underwater reef near the present-day Suez Canal, providing a walkable land passage.
The fleeing Israelites make their escape, but when the Pharaoh’s army tries to pursue them the waters come crashing back and drown the soldiers.
Scientists believe the likely location of the ‘miracle’ was not the Red Sea, but a nearby spot in the Nile Delta region where an ancient river is believed to have merged with a coastal lagoon.
Analysis of archaeological records, satellite measurements and maps allowed the researchers to estimate the water flow and depth at the site 3,000 years ago. An ocean computer model was then used to simulate-the impact of a strong wind on the 6ft deep waters.
The scientists found an east wind of 63 mph blowing for 12 hours would have driven the waters back, both into the lake and the river channel. This would have created a land bridge about two miles long and three miles wide lasting four hours.
The waters really would have been parted, with barriers of water raised on both sides of the newly exposed mud flats.
As soon as the winds dropped, the waters would have rushed back, much like a tidal bore.
Anyone stranded on the mud would have been at risk of drowning, said the scientists, whose findings were reported in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE.
Lead researcher Carl Drews, from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said: ‘People have always been fascinated by this Exodus story, wondering if it comes from historical facts. What this study shows is that the description of the waters parting indeed has a basis in physical laws.
‘The parting of the waters can be understood through fluid dynamics. The wind moves the water in a way that’s in accordance with physical laws, creating a safe passage with water on two sides and then abruptly allowing the water to rush back in.’
The computer simulations showed dry land could also have been exposed at two other nearby sites during a wind storm.
Those events did not fit so well with the Biblical account, since both involved a single body of water getting pushed to one side rather than being parted.
Previous theories have been put forward to explain the parting of the Red Sea. One involved a tsunami, which can cause a body of water to retreat and then advance rapidly. But such an event would not have caused the gradual overnight divide as described in the Bible, or been so associated with winds.