Exodus Theory Inherits the Wind
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.”
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 BibleGateway.com.
There’s baloney in this story, but first, some disclaimers. It’s true the authors and reporters never denied the Exodus story was miraculous or called it a myth. It’s also true that Biblical miracles can be accomplished with natural means (example: the Jordan crossing made possible by a landslide upriver, as described in Joshua 3). These become, then, miracles of timing of natural events. For all we know, the authors respect the historicity of the Bible’s account and may even wish to shed light on its miraculous character. Lastly, studying the power of wind and its ability to create land bridges under specific circumstances is honorable scientific practice.
The baloney is in two inferences: (1) that explaining a Biblical story “naturally” is superior to accepting a miracle. That assumption begs all kinds of questions: what is meant by natural and miracle? What is meant by a scientific explanation? There are nuances of coordination between natural law and divine action that are glossed over in the broad-brush assumption that natural law trumps miracles (see joke). A false impression is promulgated that all Biblical miracles can be subsumed under “natural explanations,” with a corollary that the Biblical accounts themselves are extensions of normal, natural phenomena that ancient people exaggerated and interpreted as miracles.
The second problem is this: it would take more faith to believe the “natural” explanation in this tale than the straightforward Biblical account in Exodus 14. Yes, God did use a “strong east wind all night” as part of his action (v. 21), 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, the timing of this amazingly specific wind (if that is all that was involved) – a finely-tuned wind that could blow waters left and right and maintain dry land in the midst of the sea (v. 22) without blowing women and children into the water with hurricane force gusts – was so precisely timed as to begin when Moses stretched out his hand over the sea (v. 21), allow all the Israelites to cross, then stop exactly when Moses stretched out his hand again (v. 26), drowning the entire army of Pharaoh. 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” explanation?
The Bible is explicit that this was an actual miracle under the direct purpose and intervention of God. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets and psalmists recalled this extraordinary example of God’s power to protect His people, by opening a path in the “great deep” for them to cross. If such things happened normally from time to time, any Jewish teen could see through it, telling Mom and Dad, “What’s the big deal?” It would be a miracle if the Exodus story lasted more than a generation. If you are a Bible believer, 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. Be more charitable than Science Daily and Live Science; feed the beggars.