Last week we considered some possible requirements when we set out to make new disciples, specifically how we could help a new disciple understand some of the Sunday bible readings on hearing them for the first time. I would like to continue with that thought today because the old testament reading (Ex 14: 19- 31), while being well known presents us with many problems. The story of Moses leading the people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea has been the subject of song and film. The spiritual Go Down Moses tells how Moses convinced Pharaoh to let the enslaved people go, while the 1923 silent movie The 10 Commandments by Cecil B Demile and the 1956 remake staring Charlton Heston had Moses leading a huge column of people between towering walls of water. But neither film nor song say where the Israelites actually crossed the Red Sea or explain how the waters were held back for many hours. It's not clear how many Israelites left Egypt and neither address the really important question which is, did it actually happen or is it just a fiction? When faced with these questions I imagine that our new disciples might search the web and will find a mass of conflicting views and “evidence”. So, using material that they would find easily this is what I have discovered. Given the width of the Red Sea the commonly accepted locations for the crossing are the narrowest points being the Gulf of Suez in the north and the Straits of Tiran in the Gulf of Aqaba to the south. When the walking route described in Exodus 12:20 is taken into account the most likely crossing point is the Straits of Tiran which was also much safer that the Gulf of Suez. The Red Sea is very deep and a Gulf of Suez crossing would have required many people and animals to climb down a steep muddy slope for about 750 meters to the sea bed, walk across and then climb up on the other side. This would be difficult to do safely. However, in the Straits of Tiran there is a natural land bridge that is 800m wide and 18 km long. The bridge was formed by corals and has deep shipping channels on either side where the Egyptian army could have been destroyed. At the present time the land bridge is 13m below the sea level. It would have been lower at the time of the Exodus but not so low that people and animals could not have easily crossed it. Whether the crossing place was the Gulf of Suez or the Gulf of Aqaba it would have taken a miracle to have created a dry path and maintained it long enough for the Israelites to pass safely over. A miracle that the creator God could easily have performed. People who do not like the idea of the miracle try to find natural explanations. Perhaps an earth quake and resulting tsunami happened at the very time the Israelites needed the sea to part. The trouble with that idea, as we saw with the Boxing Day tsunami, is that the water may retreat from a beach but it does not stay away long enough for events as described in Exodus to occur. Also the crossing place was not a beach. Another explanation is that the crossing actually occurred in various shallow reed lakes so it was not the Red Sea but the Reed Sea that was crossed. These lakes can dry up when a strong wind blows and would have allowed the Israelites to cross but they would not have been deep enough to destroy the Egyptian army. Additionally, crossing them would not have resulted in the Israelites being saved from the Egyptians as is described in Chapter 15 of the Book of Exodus. The Egyptians could have just gone round the lake and encircled the Israelites. Another question to be considered is how many Israelites actually made the journey. Some sources quote Exodus 12: 37-38 which identifies 600,000 men on foot besides children and a mixed crowd who also went up with them, as well as livestock in great numbers. This gives a traditional view of there being between 1 and 2.5 million people plus live stock living in the wilderness for 40 years. But as many experts point out there is absolutely no archaeological evidence to support this number of people in any of the places that can be identified from the Exodus account. Additionally, even though God was providing food in the form of “manna” the logistics of supporting such a huge crowd would have been impossible. One source (Jeff Benner) quoted an army quartermaster who estimated that 1 million people would need 600 tons of food, 1600 tons of fire wood and 5 million gallons of water each day to survive and the livestock would have had insufficient feed in the wilderness. There are numerous other problems but another important one is that 1 million people walking 4 abreast would form a column about 140 miles long which, with animals included would have taken many days to cross the Red Sea.
The more generally accepted view is that 600,000 men is a mistranslation of the word “elaph” which also means chief or soldier (Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, David Ben Gurion, Jeff Benner). If that is the case there were perhaps 600 soldiers with families and others or about 6000 people in total, still a large group for which there is no archaeological evidence. It should be noted that a study of Jewish genealogy which takes account of the time the Israelites were in Egypt, approximately 430 years, supports this lesser number. Now how reliable is the story? Some sources suggest that the Exodus as described never actually happened and they further suggest that the story was written at a later date to help the Israelites understand their history and relationship to God. To support this it has been suggested that the story of walking between walls of water was a metaphor for building a relationship through baptism, which at that time required full immersion. Another reason for concocting the story was perhaps to prevent people from forming a close relationship or alliance with Egypt. There is even a view that Moses himself never existed and that the Israelites never lived in Egypt. This is because their villages show a clear developmental relationship to adjacent Canaanite villages and because there is no evidence in Egyptian records of either the plagues affecting Egypt at the time of the Exodus (1446BCE) or of the existence and release of the Israelites. To counter this it has been suggested that it would have been too embarrassing for any Pharaoh to record this fact so it was expunged from history. It was a Jewish source who suggested that Moses and Abraham may never have existed, which is a surprising view given the important place that they hold in the history of the Jews and in the development of their relationship with God. While some stories about them may not be true it does not mean that they were not historical figures. We all know that stories about important people can be made up to inspire us. Was Robert the Bruce really saved by an industrious spider, did Dick Whittington really become Lord Mayor of London because he listened to the church bells, did Robin Hood really only rob the rich so that he could give money to the poor? Probably not but the people were real and the stories have meaning for us. So too does the story of the Exodus and Red Sea crossing. Everyone is going to have to make up their own mind about how much veracity to give to this and many other stories in the Old Testament. It may be that some of the very early ones are not absolutely true but are important because they explain our relationship with God. The people were nomadic and may well have spent time as animal herders in Egypt but not slaves as described because the evidence is that the two major building projects attributed to their labour in Exodus 1:11 did not occur at the same time. They may later have left as individual family groups, possibly at the urging of Moses who suggested that they could live better lives elsewhere where they would be free to serve their God. If that happened the people would not have crossed the Red Sea en-mass but the story is helpful because it tells us that if we really put our trust in God, rather than ourselves he has the power to lead, guide and keep us safe. The bible is not a history text book, a newspaper or a journal. It's not necessarily concerned with time lines and provable facts. It does however, record the development of our relationship with God in a way that presents us with issues, challenges and solutions that we need to consider carefully and to pray about as we work to become the disciples that Jesus expects us to be. This is the message that we need to give to our new disciples who may be confused or disturbed by some of the readings and who will become even more confused and possibly disheartened if they try to find the one and only correct interpretation using current on-line resources. Readings are provided on a regular basis to make us think, discuss and pray about the issues raised and that is the important point to remember. Joan Rodrigues