Medical Biophysics Graduate Student Association

MBPGSA Blog

Updates, opinion pieces, and news related to the department

"It Would Take More Than A Man To Lead The Slaves From Bondage...

...it would take a God."

Or so the quote goes from the classic film, "The Ten Commandments." Even if you haven't seen the movie, the image of Moses separating the Red Sea and leading the Israelites to salvation is likely an image we've all seen, or heard described. And even though I was raised as a Catholic, I've always thought this particular story to be somewhat ludicrous, at least when thought of in literal terms. To me, most stories taken from the Bible (or Qu'ran, etc.) are meant to be used as metaphors that we can use to live better, more spiritual lives. But I'm not here to talk about religion. I'm here to talk about science, and some new interesting research that suggests that the parting of the Red Sea may have actually occurred.

In a recent article by Drews & Han (PLoS One, 2010, 5 (8): e12481), they argue that wind setdown, a physical, measurable phenomenon, could theoretically have led to the opening of a land bridge in the Eastern Nile Delta, thus allowing people to cross the Red Sea. 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." Basically what this means is that when strong winds blow for a long period of time in one direction, bodies of water can actually recede from the upwind shore and expose terrain that was previously underwater. There have been many documented cases of this phenomenon through the centuries, starting with early settlers who would sometimes wake to find their boats resting comfortably on a mud flat in the morning, having left it in a river the night before. But in more recent years, actual case studies have measured wind setdown effects in Lake Erie on the order of 2 meters in both 2006 and 2008. I have even personally noticed this effect, albeit on a much smaller scale: this past summer I arrived at my friend's cottage on a very windy day to find that the water level had risen about 1.5 feet, unfortunately placing the dock almost completely underwater. The next day, everything was back to normal.

Using very sophisticated computer models to analyze a wide variety of hydrodynamic mechanisms, the authors of this study have recreated the geography of the Eastern Nile Delta and placed it under a slew of different possible weather conditions to see if they could recreate the parting of the sea, as it were. What they have discovered is that under a uniform 28 m/s easterly wind, their model can produce a land bridge that is 3 - 4 km long, 5 km wide, and is able to remain open for approximately 4 hours. Theoretically this would have allowed the Israelites to cross the Red Sea, under these certain set of circumstances.

So, the image of towering walls of water on both sides of the Israelites as they crossed the Red Sea is probably incorrect (probably = certainly). But it is possible that a land bridge was formed, thus allowing the slaves to escape their captors. Reading this article got me thinking: how many other biblical stories may have roots in science? I still maintain that most biblical stories are metaphors, but at the very least, it's interesting to see what other types of questions others are trying to answer with their research. Maybe my dream of walking on water is not too far off.

Greg