We are all familiar with the cartoons of Moses and his people walking through the sea with walls of water on each side of them, and we are apt to take all of this with a large pinch of salt. However, there are two ways of looking at myths: we can simply dismiss them as fictions, or we can look for the core of truth that often lies behind them. This is not to say that they are exactly historically true, far from it, as orally transmitted tales often contain some or much elaboration. But history and science can reveal some interesting facts.
The Thera eruption
The date of the Exodus, the Hebrews' escape from Egypt, is not certain, but it was probably between 1600 and 1650 b.c. The tribes probably did not all leave at the same time, and some may not have been there at all. However, the Bible is emphatic that certain cataclysimic events were linked with their escape.It tells the stories of the plagues of Egypt, culminating with the death of the first born. But what event could have given rise to a series of disasters?
The main culprit is Thera. this was a volcanic island now known as Santorini, a circle of islands that remain of what was once a volcano. Sometime in the between 1600 and 1650 b.c. the volcano erupted. This was one of history's largest volcanic explosions. It blew out the centre of the island, sending pillars of volcanic material across the Mediterranean. This might explain the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that guided the Hebrews on their way out. Certainly the hot cloud would have glowed in the dark.
However, we still need to explain the sea parting. Forget the image of walls of water. There is a more scientific explanation. Also forget the Red Sea, which is a copyist's error. The Hebrews escaped by the Mediterranean shore through an area known as the Reed Sea, a district of shallow coastal lagoons through which it was possible to wade.
The eruption had left a large hole in the island, protected from the sea by a thin barrier of rock. and the rock in the hole, the caldera, would still have been hot. Eventually the thin wall collapsed, sending the Mediterranean pouring into it. Sea levels therefore dropped and shores round the Mediterranean therefore receded, just about the time that the Hebrews were passing along the shore, leaving them to cross dryshod. Followed by the Egyptian chariot force, the elite fighting force of the day, they made for higher ground, a wise decision as it turned out.
The water in the hole, known as a caldera, heated up and came back as a burst of steam. The immense bubbling outflow of water generates a tsunami that smashed its way across the Mediterranean. Large parts of Crete were overwhelmed by the power of thirty foot waves travelling at possibly over two hundred mph. Archaeology reveals evidence of major damage to Cretan cities at that time, and the evidence is consistent with a major tsunami impact, as blocks of masonry are tumbled over and hurled inland. The wave reached the shores of the Reed Sea, just as the Egyptian chariot force was moving across the receded lagoons. Elite fighting force they might have been, but it is almost impossible to resist a thirty foot wall of water racing at high speed at you. The destruction of the Egytian military force was total.
There are other indications that Israel escaped during a period of volcanic activity. The story that frogs came out in abundance can be linked to the fact that animals sense Earth tremors, which precede an eruption, and leave their holes in the ground. The Nile's turning to blood can be explained as red volcanic dust. The plague of boils is easily explained. Volcanic ash can be very acidic and will leave nasty burns on the skin if it touches exposed flesh. All of these stories have been legendised, but contain a core of truth.
The final plague was the death of the first born. This is not mentioned anywhere in Egyptian history, but the possibility is that desperate Egytians, fearing that their gods were angry, were driven to human sacrifice as a last resort. Embarrassment may have led them to delete this event from their history.
A number of the other events in this story have scientific explanations. The quails that landed on the Israelite camp were driven to exhaustion in their migratory flight by a strong wind, which could have been caused by volcanic disturbance of the wind patterns. The manna is a naturally occurring substance secreted by insects, now rare but still found. The water that seeped from the rock occurs when water is damned up behind a limestone crust.
Intepretation is all. There are two ways of looking at these events. Either Israel benefited from a very fortuitous set of coincidences; or they were guided along their way to be at the right place at the right place at the right time. Science and history can illuminate the background, but the question of how to explain this remarkable set of coincidences goes beyond the pair of them.