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1    The Red Sea Crossing        A Brunt
2    Question
3    Answer
4    Update Investigator 24
5    Update Investigator 28


Allan Brunt

(Investigator 14, 1990 September)

The Bible's account of the Red Sea crossing is one of the most meteorological parts of the Old Testament. The sequence of events described in Exodus 14 has been repeated in other parts of the world during severe storms. In other words such a parting of the sea occurs in nature.

The Bible's accurate record of the conditions necessary for the sea to part is a powerful argument for the historical truth of the crossing. This in no way lessens the miraculous nature of the events which occurred at the right place and at the right time.

Even the signals to guide the Israelites were of a meteorological nature.  A pillar of fire is an electrical discharge phenomenon called St Elmo's Fire.  In dry areas the brush discharge of electricity formed by blowing dust under special circumstances can cause vertical pillars of sparks, usually on the top of sand ridges. People who have seen these describe them as pillars of fire.

The "pillar of cloud" (Exodus 13:21) is not a known meteorological phenomenon but the term "sun pillar" is – and it looks like a pillar of cloud. It occurs when the sun shines through fine ice crystal clouds with the crystals aligned in a special way.  It is really an optical phenomenon of the halo family.

Some people argue that the pillars of fire and cloud were caused by an active volcano which produced a fiery red glow at night and billows of cloud by day.   However, because the pillars of fire and cloud moved about (Exodus 14:19-20), I maintain that these signals were meteorological. Figs. 1 and 2 are examples to support my case.

[Figs. 1 and 2 are here omitted – Ed.]

There is also no justification for attributing the change in sea level at the crossing area to an earthquake, as no such activity is mentioned in the Exodus record.  Because of the sequence of events and the wind speed, direction and duration, I maintain that its cause was meteorological.

The phenomenon which occurred is known as a storm surge, the effects of which are similar to seismic sea waves of earthquake origin.  Storm surges may result in marked increases (positive surges) or marked decreases (negative surges) in the level of the sea for a few hours.

Most of the literature deals with positive surges as these are usually more dramatic. They have been known to inundate coastal areas and cause huge losses of life. In East Pakistan, for example, 200,000 lives were lost in 1970 when a 6 metre positive surge covered the Ganges delta.  Negative surges are important also. The British Met. Office,  for example, has a special service warning big tankers of negative surges in the English Channel so they won't bash themselves on the sea bottom because of the lowered sea level.

The two main factors which affect the height of storm surges are:

1 The wind set-up
2 The drop in atmospheric pressure.

The set-up is greatest in winds over 160 Km/Hr and where the wind is on-shore, piling up the water against the coastal barrier when only one coastline is involved.  The effect of atmospheric pressure can be likened to an inverted barometer.  The sea is constantly being pressed down by the weight of the atmosphere and when atmospheric pressure drops markedly (i.e. the air weighs less), a large dome of sea water is raised and there is a marked increase in the level of the sea (over and above any wave formation). As the mercury in barometers is 13½ times as dense as seawater, there is a 13½ inch rise in sea level for every 1 inch drop in atmospheric pressure.

Many other factors, such as the shape of the sea bottom and the indentation of the coastline, can amplify a surge when the speed of movement of the system is just right. The combined effects of the wind set-up and drop in atmospheric pressure are usually most dramatic in tropical cyclones.  The region of greatest wind and lowest pressure is near the centre of such cyclones, where marked positive surges are recorded. The increased amount of seawater has to come from somewhere and this is usually from the periphery of the cyclone where marked negative surges or a drop in sea level can be recorded.

The "Red Sea" crossing could not have occurred in the Red Sea proper (the water is too deep there) but in the shallower northward extension of the Red Sea.  Tradition has it that it occurred in the Lake Timsah area because the Hebrew words usually translated Red Sea are "yam suph" where "suph" means reed or papyrus.  Hence "yam suph" is better translated as Reed Sea rather than Red Sea.

The only situation which can produce a marked surge in the southern Red Sea is a cyclone of tropical origin drifting in from the Gulf of Aden. Severe tropical cyclones have done this several times in recorded history. The 160+ Km/Hr winds and very low pressure over southern parts of the Red Sea proper would produce a positive surge in this area.

This would mean a negative surge in the shallower area where the crossing occurred, as water would be drained away to the south to form increased sea levels. A drop of only 2 to 4 metres in sea level would expose parts of the sea bottom in shallower parts and easily expose a path for the crossing.

To support this contention I stress the following points:

(1) The wind at the time of crossing was "strong" (Exodus 14:21) but the Israelites managed to cross against it. That is it was not in the 160 Km/Hr class such as occurs near the centre of a major cyclone but consistent with the 50 or 60 Km/Hr class typical of the periphery of a cyclone where negative surges are most common.

(2) The wind direction was "east". (Exodus 14:21)  A major cyclone in the southern parts of the Red Sea would produce an east wind in the crossing area as winds blow anticlock-wise round lows in the northern hemisphere. No other position of a cyclone could affect the level of the Red Sea and no other wind direction fulfils the required conditions.  A strong westerly wind would have indicated a cyclone over the Mediterranean, but this was only poorly connected to the Red Sea at the time and so no such cyclone could have affected the level of the Red Sea. A strong southerly wind would indicate a cyclone over Egypt,  but cyclones die out quickly over desert regions and they are not associated with major surges.  Similarly, a strong northerly wind would place the low pressure area over Saudi Arabia. Only an easterly wind direction in the crossing area fits storm surge theory and observation.

(3) The wind was maintained all night. (Exodus 14:21) That is, it was not the result of a localised storm but one of widespread occurrence.

(4) The sea returned to its strength in the morning (Exodus 14:27) i.e. the drop  in sea level lasted for 12 hours at most. A moving cyclone with a marked positive surge sets up a moving mass of water which moves according to a formula for gravity waves:

v   =  square root of  (gh)

v is the velocity of the wave
g is the acceleration due to gravity (9.8m/sec/sec)
h is the mean depth of the water

The velocity of gravity waves in the Red Sea proper (where the mean depth is about 300 metres) is given by:

v  = square root of (9.8 x 300) metres per sec
   = 54 metres per sec or 194 km per hour

The maximum distance for such a volume of water to travel as a gravity wave along the full length of the Red Sea is about 2100 Kms. That is, at a velocity of 194 Km/Hr the longest period before the sea returned would be 2100/194 or about 11 hours. This is consistent with the Biblical record.

(5) The water flowed back and covered Pharaoh's chariots and horsemen.  (Exodus 14:28) The amplitude of gravity waves (which are caused by a meteorological shock or an earthquake shock) is usually quite small in deep water, but it increases as the wave moves into a region of decreasing depth. This is known as the shoaling effect.

The amount of increase is given by Green's law, which is:

 hs            Hd1/4
 —     =      —
 hd            Hs 1/4

 hs  is the amplitude of the wave in shallow water
 hd   "    "         "          "    "       "      "  deep water
 Hs  is the equilibrium depth in the shallow area
 Hd   "   "           "               "      "    "   deep water

Thus a quite moderate gravity wave of say 1 metre travelling northward in the deep water of the Red Sea (mean depth 300m) would be amplified to give waves

 hs            300 1/4
 —     =       ——
  1                2 1/4

or about 3.5m high in the shallower waters of Lake Timsah (mean depth 2m).  The usual sequence for this type of event is for the depressed sea levels to be suddenly replaced by a major wave (or waves) which inundates the area affected.  After the drop in sea level, a sudden inundation by 3.5m of seawater could easily have covered Pharoah's chariots and horsemen.

The sequence of events described in the Old Testament – the drop in sea level exposing parts of the sea bottom for some hours and the gravity wave or waves generated by a severe moving cyclone – are exactly as found in many storm surge situations involving relatively enclosed waters like the Red Sea.

The only part of the record which does not fit surge theory is the part where the waters were a wall on the left hand and on the right hand. (Exodus 14:22)  This has come about because of translating the Hebrew word "chowmah” as a wall  whereas it is the active participle of an unused root apparently meaning to join.  It commonly used to refer to walled cities where they were completely enclosed by a wall.

The word occurs in I Samuel 25:15-16 which describes how David's men "were night and day a wall around" some shepherds.  Therefore a better interpretation is that the Israelites were enclosed in a narrow path with a body of water on the left hand and a body of water on the right hand rather than vertical walls of water.

The whole argument might sound too theoretical to those not familiar with storm surges. However, the phenomenon is reported many times throughout the world each year. Marked positive surges are usually described in the news media as being due to earthquakes, using the name "tidal wave" but this is a common error as they are purely of meteorological origin.

Many examples of storm surges throughout the world have been included in the scientific literature but the news media also includes identifiable cases.  For example, Brisbane's COURIER MAIL  (December 4 1964) gives details of a storm surge which occurred in Nova Scotia, Canada. Note that the water suddenly dropped low enough to bare a path for the crew of the wrecked ship FURY to walk ashore and that "they called the phenomenon a miracle reminiscent of the Biblical parting of the Red Sea that saved the children of Israel”.


HALIFAX (Nova Scotia), December 3 (A.A.P.) –  Eighteen Greek seamen walked ashore form their wrecked ship yesterday talking of a "miracle” when a combination of low tide and high winds swept the water away from a gravel bank leading a mile to shore.

Winds with gusts of 100 miles and hour, and 40ft. Atlantic seas battered the 3800-ton Liberian ship Fury and her crew of 28 for 24 hours, during which the tide came in and went out twice.

500 FT. REEF

Suddenly the water dropped low enough to bare a 500ft. wide reef, and the crew walked ashore.
They called the phenomenon a "miracle," reminiscent of the Biblical parting of the Red Sea that saved the children of Israel.

"It's quite unbelievable how we got away," said the Fury's skipper, Captain George Paperas, 28.
The crew walked away from the ship shortly after noon yesterday.

Spray froze on the stranded ship and the rocks along the "miraculous" path to safety.
When the crew reached the barren Nova Scotia coast, a fishing boat picked them up and took them to the hamlet of Sonora, a short distance away.

Paperas, skipper of the Fury for 10 days, said the ship's radio transmitter was shaken out of its brackets and crashed to the deck minutes after the distress call was flashed.


The sea bottom has been exposed in Lake Timsah on other occasions and there have been several natural parallels in this area.

In THE LIVING WORLD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT Prof. Bernhard Anderson writes (page 54): "This happening is not impossible in this marshy area where the waters are shallow; in fact, it has been witnessed at other times.”

The writer of Exodus was amazingly accurate in his observations. People caught in such situations are usually too concerned with their own safety to notice details of wind speed, direction and duration as well as the times when the sea level was depressed and raised. The author of Exodus must have known a great deal about storm surges if he made the whole thing up!


Principles of Physical Oceanography  G Neuman & W Pierson
The Sea  Volume 1 Physical Oceanography  M Hill

Copyright (c) 1990 Allan Brunt




(Investigator 15, 1990 November)

Mr Brunt's meteorological explanation of the Red Sea incident when Pharoah's army drowned was very convincing.

Can Mr Brunt on the basis of his theory explain the statement: "and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore?" (Exodus 14:30)

Why would the dead end up on the shore?

M Vivien




(Investigator 16, 1991 January)

I refer to M. Vivien's question (Investigator No. 15) about the "Egyptian dead upon the sea shore" after the Red Sea Crossing.

I can only reply that this has been the normal experience with most recorded storm surges in history, although I feel certain that not all the dead would be washed up on the shore. Some of the bodies are ‘lost at sea', being swept out by the retreating mass of water after the surge but some of the bodies are left where the water inundated the coastline.

In Australia's greatest storm surge, when 307 fisherman lost their lives at Bathurst Bay, North Queensland in 1899, many of the bodies were found near the shore after a 12 metre surge swept 2 to 3kms inland. In addition to these bodies, "dead fish of all kinds were piled up, including porpoises, sharks, dugong, sea-snakes, also sea birds, land birds and wallabies".

Why these were not washed back in to the sea by the retreating storm surge is a matter of conjecture. I surmise that the force of an incoming surge must be greater than that generated by a retreating surge.

A. Brunt
Rosslyn Park



(Investigator 24, 1992 May)

14 (September 1990) had an article about The Red Sea Crossing by Allan Brunt.

Mr Brunt's theory that the Red Sea events in the story of Moses indicate a "storm surge" received recent support in The Advertiser (1992 March 16 p. 14):

Study backs parting of Red Sea

LOS ANGELES: Complex computer calculations indicate winds could have parted the Red Sea's northern extension as described in the Bible...

    A gale-force wind blowing continuously for about 10 hours could have caused the sea to recede, exposing a path to the opposite shore, says a report today in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

    Meteorologist, Nathan Paldor of the University of Rhode Island and oceanographer Doron Nof of Florida State University write that a steady northeasterly wind of 72km/h would cause the water level to drop about 3m – enough to create a path across the shallow sea.

    An abrupt change in the wind would have caused the waters to come crashing back and drown the Egyptian pursuers as the Bible describes, they say.

    Oceanographer Gabriel Csanady of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, said the new scenario is "very plausible"...



(Investigator 28, 1993 January)

The Red Sea Crossing of the Israelites followed by the drowning of the Egyptian army was attributed to a "storm surge" by Allan Brunt in Investigator 14.  No. 24 showed subsequent support for Brunt's theory in The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

However, similar explanations apparently existed 100 years ago. The references, which Investigator hasn't been able to check, are:
Modern Science in Bible Lands, 1888, Hodder & Stoughton, Britain.
Scientific Confirmations of Old Testament History, 1906, G F Wright, Bibliotheca Sacra, USA.

Investigating the Bible's scientific accuracy: