Monday, September 27, 2010

The Implausible 'Naturalist' Theory of the Parting of the Red Sea


Below is an examination of the recent headline that seeks to give a natural explanation to the parting of the Red Sea under Moses described in the Book of Exodus. Though it is lamentable people lower themselves to try to give natural explanations to miracles and in fact it would take much more faith to believe something like the parting of the Red Sea happened at the exact moment needed, still there are positives to this story which actually only confirm the miracle. First, the authors never deny the historicity of the Exodus account, and second what they are in fact doing is providing a possible natural explanation for how the miracle actually did occur. We already know that God used a natural “strong east wind all night” (Ex. 14:21) while the people of Israel crossed the sea, but the Bible goes on to say the waters became “a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” (v.22). Moreover, if such a "natural" wind just happened at the right time, how did this wind not blow men, women and children into the water with hurricane force gusts? How did this wind allow for everyone to cross and how did it end at exactly the right moment when Moses lifted his arms to allow the enemy to drown? Is the theory of Drews and Han, and their predecessors, somehow an improvement? By any account, it’s a miracle anyway taking their theory, so where is the net gain in “natural” explanations? Christians should avoid getting sucked into the idea that these so-called “natural” explanations of Biblical miracles help make them more plausible. At best, they still require a lot of faith and leave many questions begging. At worst, they are paths to unsophisticated skepticism and leave many questions begging.

An old theory that the Exodus story occurred because of natural winds has surfaced again. It seeks to provide a purely natural explanation for what the Old Testament records as a miracle.

Two atmospheric scientists from Boulder, Colorado, Carl Drews and Weiqing Han, referenced a theory by Doron Nof (see his website) that briefly made a splash in 1992 on TV with model demonstrations of high winds blowing back the waters off a submerged sandbar. Some believers tended to think this might give a plausible explanation for the Exodus story, while unbelievers tended to discount the Exodus story as elaboration of a natural phenomenon. Drews and Han drew from Nof’s idea, which was elaborated on by Russian scientists Naum Voltzinger and Alexei Androsov, with new models and experiments: “A suite of model experiments are performed to demonstrate a new hydrodynamic mechanism that can cause an angular body of water to divide under wind stress, and to test the behavior of our study location and reconstructed topography.” They also pointed to a new site for the crossing on the western Sinai Peninsula rather than the Gulf of Aqaba. Between the Lake of Tanis and the Nile, they calculated, a land passage 5 km wide might have opened up for 4-7 hours under winds of 28-33 m/s (62-74 mph), but they admitted, “these stronger winds may render walking too difficult for a mixed group of people.” Their theory was published in PLoS One.1

As to whether this provides a plausible natural explanation for the Red Sea crossing, Drews and Han were restrained in their paper: “Wind setdown is the drop in water level caused by wind stress acting on the surface of a body of water for an extended period of time. As the wind blows, water recedes from the upwind shore and exposes terrain that was formerly underwater. Previous researchers have suggested wind setdown as a possible hydrodynamic explanation for Moses crossing the Red Sea, as described in Exodus 14.”2 But in the popular press, they drew the connection more directly. Drews was quoted in Live Science saying, “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.” Similar, in Science Daily, the subtext was that the Biblical miracle can be explained naturally: “Computer Modeling Applies Physics to Red Sea Escape Route” was its headline; Live Science titled its story, “Parting of Red Sea Jibes With Natural Laws.” Indeed, Brett Israel in his write-up was ready to exchange Gods: “Mother Earth could have parted the Red Sea, hatching the great escape described in the biblical book of Exodus, a new study finds.”

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1. Carl Drews and Weiqing Han, “Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta,” Public Library of Science: One, 5(8): e12481. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012481.
2. See Exodus 14 (ESV) at
www.BibleGateway.com.

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