The following is chapter 5 from my book “Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets.
“Tell Me the Truth, Moses, What Really Happened at the Red Sea?”
After years of devastating slavery, God aided Moses in leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Several days after the Exodus, the erstwhile slaves reached the banks of the Red Sea, also called the Sea of Reeds. They felt trapped and saw no escape. If they moved forward into the sea in front of them they would be drowned. If they stayed put, the pursuing chariots of their prior Egyptian masters would overtake them, seize them, and transport them back like cattle to abject slavery.
Then the unexpected occurred. Exodus 14:22 reports, “And the Israelites came into the sea on dry land, the waters were a wall to them on their right and on their left.” The last half is repeated verbatim in verse 29. Jews chant the final part of verse 29 with a special melody, enthusiastically, during the synagogue service in order to emphasize the miracle.
The description is clear. The water piled up on two sides, like walls, and the Israelites marched forward on dry land. In this chapter, we look at the story in Exodus as well as similar occurrences in the prophetical books (in Joshua 3 and II Kings 2) and assess what exactly happened in each case.
- What really happened at the Red Sea?
- Should we accept Exodus 14:22 as literally stated?
- Did a miracle occur?
- How do other biblical books report what happened?
- How do some of the post-biblical ancient documents understand the event?
The First Interpretation of Exodus 14:22
Exodus 15 is the song that Moses and the Israelites sang in celebration of their salvation. They had just witnessed the splitting of the sea, but, curiously, they testify that they saw something different than reported in Exodus 14.
“And with the breath of Your [God’s] nostril [a wind] water heaped up, streams stood up like a mound, the depths congealed in the heart of the sea.”
Are the reports the same?
They are not.
Exodus 14 speaks of two walls, one on each side.
Exodus 15 recalls that there was only a single mound.
Although the biblical Hebrew uses the singular “wall” in Exodus 14, two walls are clearly implied, since the verse states explicitly that one wall stood on the right and another on the left. The fifth-century rabbinically authorized Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch called Targum Onkelos recognizes this and renders “wall” in 14:22 as “walls” in its translation.
Exodus 15, on the other hand, clearly depicts a single “mound.” It is probably insignificant that one chapter has “wall” and the other “mound,” since both are descriptive terms for a pileup of the seawater. However, it is significant that Exodus 15 has the Israelites testify that they saw only one mound. Onkelos, in fact, recognizes this difference. It changes “mound” to “wall” in its rendering of Exodus 15 for the sake of consistency, but it does not alter “wall” to the plural to make chapter 15 conform with 14.
Thus far, we have two different recollections of the event. We will see more.
What Do the Other Biblical Sources Say?
There are many biblical verses that completely ignore the miraculous one or two walls or mound. They testify only that the water dried up. Needless to say, this diminishes the miracle. These versions may not even see the event as a miracle at all: the water simply dried up overnight without any accompanying unusual visuals, such as the seawater forming into one or two huge walls.
Some forty years after the event, Moses reminds the Israelites of what had happened, and only recalls, “And they passed through the sea into the wilderness” (Numbers 14:25, 21:4). Now, if there was an accompanying miracle of the sea turning into a mound or walls of water that stood at attention during the entire passage of millions of Israelites from one shore to the next, we would expect Moses to remind this new generation of the miracle, for the entire intent of his speech was to impress these children of the post-Exodus generation of the assistance God had rendered their parents.
Less than a year later, Rahab, a Canaanite woman, told the two spies that Joshua dispatched to reconnoiter the land that the Canaanites feared the Israelites (Joshua 2:10), “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt.” If the Canaanites had heard of a miracle of heaping wall(s), this certainly would have impressed them even more, and Rahab would have mentioned this to the spies. Thus it appears that she knew nothing about a mound or walls.
Additionally, at the end of his life, Joshua recalls the events of the Red Sea and does not mention any walls or a mound.
Rahab, the Canaanites, and Joshua were not alone in recalling a non-miraculous event.
Psalm 66:6 recounts and extols the day at the Sea of Reeds but does not report one or two walls. It states, “He [God] turned the sea into dry land.”
Psalm 104:7 declares simply, “He rebukes the sea and makes it dry.”
Psalm 106:9 has the same: “And He rebuked the Red Sea and it dried up, and He led them through the great waters as through a wilderness.”
Isaiah 43:16 recalls God only making “a way in the sea.”
Isaiah 50:2 is no different: “Behold, at My [God’s] rebuke I dry up the sea.”
The prophet Nahum 1:4 echoes the others: “He rebukes the sea and makes it dry.”
Nehemiah 9:11 also reads, “And You [God] parted the sea before them, and they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land.”
We now, so far, have three versions: one mound, two walls, and no walls.
Psalm 78:13 is similar to Exodus 15, but is not exactly the same. It states, “He parted the sea and He caused them to pass through and He made the waters stand up like a jug.” This time, as in Exodus 15, there is only one rising of the seawater. However, it is not like a mound, but like a jug.
Psalm 18:16 seems to present still a different account, a description not of accompanying wall(s) of water on the side(s), but of the effect upon the earth beneath. Apparently, the ground was so denuded of water that one was miraculously able to see deep into the earth: “Then channels of water were seen, and the foundations of the world were exposed, at Your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of Your nostrils.”
There are thus six distinct biblical versions of the Sea of Reeds event: one mound, a slight variation where it is a jug, two walls, no walls (only that the sea ran dry), a miraculous revelation of the “foundations of the world,” and most of the sources that testify that the water simply dried up.
What Is the Post-Biblical Testimony of the Sea of Reeds Episode?
There are many post-biblical descriptions of the event. Each seems to want to better its predecessors, elaborate on what occurred, and heighten the miracle. We will examine just five. Each contains a different report. In all, we will have seen eleven accounts.
The ninth- or tenth-century C.E. midrashic Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch called Targum Pseudo-Jonathan has two distinct stories. In its rendering of 14:22, it notes that there were solid walls to the right and to the left three hundred miles high. In 15:8, it changes it to not one or two, but, “many heaps; they stood up firmly like containers made from skin.”
The Aramaic Targum Neophyti, whose date of origin is unknown, has, “waters were made to be piles, bundles rose up like bags of running waters.” This Targum describes a single pile that was composed of many discernable “bundles” or “bags” of water.
The tannaitic Midrash Mekhilta, edited around the year 400 C.E., contains two tales. In both, the Midrash is clearly explaining that the extent of the miracle has been understated. In the first account, not only did the sea divide, but all of the water in heaven and on earth – including water in plates, wells, pitchers, and drinking cups – split, and none of the divided waters returned to their former state until the Israelites passed through the sea to dry land. In the second version, not one but twelve paths opened up in the sea, one for each tribe.
What Really Happened?
There are thus well over eleven different testimonies of the Red Sea event. This raises the obvious questions, “what really happened?” and “why are there so many different accounts?”
The answer should be obvious. Most of the versions are simply poetic or figurative descriptions designed to take a basic occurrence and render it in an enhanced manner to increase, in the perception of the reader, the help God rendered to the Israelites. Thus, for example, when the text speaks of God’s “rebuke” or “the breath of His nostrils,” the reference is to nothing more than a wind. When it speaks of seeing the “foundation of the world,” the text is referring to dry land – the phrase is poetically exaggerating and saying, “the land was so dry that one could see the foundation of the earth.” Similarly, when a rendition tells of a wall, walls, a mound, bundles of mounds etc., it is relating nothing more than that the flow of water stopped.
We can therefore understand the story as follows: The Israelites approached the Sea of Reeds and feared crossing it lest they drown. During the night the sea dried up (as most of the versions testify) and the Israelites were able to cross to the other shore on dry land. They saw this as the intervention of God and praised him for it. They described His help in various poetic or figurative ways, none of which they meant to be taken literally.
Consistency with Other Biblical Accounts
There are a host of accounts that are repeated in the Bible. Abraham ibn Ezra points out in his commentary to Exodus 20:1 that whenever the Bible repeats an episode it changes the details. Examples include the repetition of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 and the episode of Abraham’s servant obtaining a wife for Isaac in Genesis 24 and its repetition in the narrative by the servant in the same chapter. The changes are introduced for several reasons. In the Ten Commandments, the first were the words of God and the second Moses’ explanation of them. For the servant’s tale, the changes added color and information to the story and enhanced it by revealing the thought pattern, the psychology, of the servant.
Ibn Ezra also states that there are many biblical verses that contain hyperbole to highlight a point or figurative statements to add color to a story. The description of the Sea of Reeds was stated hyperbolically in figurative language to enhance what the Israelites saw as God’s help, and was stated in different ways when the story was retold.
Josephus’ View of the Event at the Sea
In the first century of the Common Era, the historian Josephus questioned the historicity of the miracle at the Red Sea. He wrote that a person should not “wonder at the astonishing nature of this thing, that a road to safety was found in the sea itself – whether [this occurred] by God’s will or simply through happenstance.” There was, he felt, no need to wonder; the happening was natural, for he heard that “that the Pamphilian Sea moved backwards for those who were accompanying Alexander [the Great], king of Macedon, thus offering them a path through it when no other way existed, and so [making it possible] to overcome, as was God’s will, the Persian empire…. However, each person may decide on his own concerning such matters.”
A Modern View
James L. Kugel reads a “realistic and totally unrealistic” approach to the Red Sea story that “coexisted side by side “ in the Bible itself. In Exodus 14:15, God instructs Moses to perform an “instantaneous, mind-mauling miracle”: “lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, so that the Israelites may enter the sea on dry land.” Later, in 14:21–22, the Bible reports that Moses did lift his hands, but the natural event that occurred happened some hours later: “The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground.” Kugel concludes: “And why, after both these options were, so to speak, on the table, should anyone opt for the utterly miraculous one?”
The Splitting of the Jordan for Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha
The Jordan River was split for Joshua. God assures him in Joshua 3:7 that He will cause the Israelites to see him as a great person “so they will know that just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” This promise could mean that God will perform the same miracle for Joshua at the Jordan that He did for Moses at the Red Sea. Yet, 3:13 states that the Jordan waters split and “stood as a single heap,” using the description contained in Exodus 15 and not the one in chapter 14. As with Moses, the book of Joshua has different accounts of the event. Joshua 5:1 reports that the Amorites and the Canaanites heard that God dried up the Jordan for the Israelites, but it does not mention that they heard anything about the supplemental miracle that the water “stood as a single heap.” These reports seem to support the view expressed above that anything beyond the basic idea that the waters dried up was poetic elaboration.
Two other partings of the Jordan are mentioned in the Bible and they can also be seen as natural events. In II Kings 2, Elijah divides the Jordan River so that he and his disciple Elisha can cross it, and later in the same chapter, after Elijah’s death, Elisha split it so that he could cross it himself.
Were Elijah and Elisha’s actions miraculous?
Arguably, this preternatural description is another instance of poetic license. II Kings 2 also contains the story of a chariot of fire and horses of fire that separated the two prophets, and Elijah’s ascent to heaven in a whirlwind. Just as many commentators understand the latter as a metaphor for Elijah’s death, so too the two rendings of the Jordan, parts of the same episode, can be understood in the same way.
What Does the Name Yam Suf, Sea of Reeds, Signify?
The Bible calls the sea Yam Suf. It does not indicate where the sea was located. The name may suggest that the occurrence at the sea was natural.
The usual translation of Yam Suf is Red Sea; Rashi and others define it as Sea of Reeds. However, this is not the literal meaning of the name.
The word suf may be derived from sufa, meaning a “tempest.” This definition suggests that the sea may have been intermittently calm and dry, as when the Israelites crossed it, yet at other times quite stormy and destructive, like the devastating storm that demolished the entire merchant fleet of boats of King Jehoshaphat in I Kings 22:49. If this is the meaning suf, the name given to the sea suggests that the Egyptians died as a result of a sudden unexpected natural storm.
There are many different versions of the Red Sea event. Most of them simply state that the seawater dried up; they do not record any accompanying miraculous occurrences such as the water walling up. The differences in the descriptions can be explained as poetic license, different attempts to praise God by describing His intervention in various figurative and exalting ways that should not be taken literally.
The conclusion that the preternatural miraculous description of the splitting of the Red Sea is poetic and that the event was actually natural is supported by the many different descriptions of what occurred. If the writers were describing what they considered an actual miracle, they would relate the miracle, each in the same way, and not describe the natural drying of the Red Sea in their own radically different hyperbolic way. The conclusion that the division of the Sea was natural is also supported by analyzing the three similar splittings of the Jordan river.
This story serves as one example of the difference between the rational and non-rational approaches to the stories recorded in Scripture. We will see further examples of the rational approach in coming chapters.
 It is also possible, as pointed out by Cross and Freedman in the ”The Song of Miriam,” 238–239, that Exodus 14 and 15 are describing two different events, the first the crossing of the Israelites and the second the drowning of the Egyptians. Cross and Freedman understood chapter 15 as describing the death of the Egyptians. This is the same event later described in Joshua 24:6–7, “God “made the sea come over them and cover them.” This was presumably a natural event; a single wall of water engulfed them.
 Joshua 24:6, 7.
 Antiquities of the Jews, 2:347–348.
 How to Read the Bible, 222.
 The four narratives – in Exodus, Joshua, and Kings – are different in that Moses is said to have separated the Sea by raising his rod, Joshua simply walks into the Jordan and it cleaves apart, Elijah folds his cloak and strikes the Jordan with it to cause it to split, and Elisha hits the Jordan with Elijah’s cloak once, says a prayer, and hits it a second time with the cloak (there is no indication that when Elisha used the cloak, it was folded). Each fits the character of the person involved. Moses used the rod for other purposes. Elijah handed over his cloak/mantle to Elisha when he first met him and when he left him at the end of his life. Elisha received the cloak from Elijah and invoked Elijah in his prayer. Joshua had no symbolic article connected to his career, thus he just walked into the Jordan.
 What is the metaphor of the fiery chariot? Some commentators understand that Elijah had a fiery temperament; he was overzealous in protecting God’s desires. He proved God’s existence by causing fire to descend upon an altar, but then, in a fiery rage, killed four hundred priests of Baal. He smote two units of soldiers who came to bring him to the king with fire from heaven. God attempted to tell him to restrain himself in the tale of the revelation at Horeb, where God was not in a fire, or storm, or earthquake, but in “a still small voice.” When this admonition failed, God discontinued his prophetic mission; Elijah died and his role was passed to Elisha. To make the point clear, Elijah is poetically described as being “taken” (dying) in (because of his) fire. Fire is treated with fire.