Photo Credit: Rabbi Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The division of the Red Sea is engraved in Jewish memory. We recite it daily in the morning service, at the transition from the Verses of Praise to the beginning of communal prayer. We speak of it again after the Shema, just before the Amidah. It was the supreme miracle of the exodus. But in what sense?

If we listen carefully to the narratives, we can distinguish two perspectives. This is the first: “The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left…. The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen – the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived. But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:22, 28-29).


The same note is struck in the Song at the Sea: “By the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up. The surging waters stood firm like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea” (Exodus 15:8).

The emphasis here is on the supernatural dimension of what happened. Water, which normally flows, stood upright. The sea parted to expose dry land. The laws of nature were suspended. Something happened for which there can be no scientific explanation.

However, if we listen carefully, we can also hear a different note: “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land” (Exodus 14:21).

Here there is not a sudden change in the behavior of water, with no apparent cause. G-d brings a wind that, in the course of several hours, drives the waters back.

Or consider this passage: “During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. He made the wheels of their chariots come off so that they had difficulty driving. The Egyptians said, ‘Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt’ ” (Exodus 14:24-25).

The emphasis here is less on miracle than on irony. The great military assets of the Egyptians – making them almost invulnerable in their day – were their horses and chariots. These were Egypt’s specialty. They still were, in the time of Solomon, five centuries later:

“Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem…. They imported a chariot from Egypt for 600 shekels of silver, and a horse for 150” (I Kings 10:26-29).

Viewed from this perspective, the events that took place could be described as follows: The Israelites had arrived at the Reed Sea at a point at which it was shallow. Possibly there was a ridge in the sea bed, normally covered by water, but occasionally – when, for example, a fierce east wind blows – exposed. This is how the Cambridge University physicist Colin Humphreys puts it in his 2003 book, The Miracles of Exodus:

“Wind tides are well known to oceanographers. For example, a strong wind blowing along Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes, has produced water elevation differences of as much as sixteen feet between Toledo, Ohio, on the west, and Buffalo, New York, on the east … There are reports that Napoleon was almost killed by a ‘sudden high tide’ while he was crossing shallow water near the head of the Gulf of Suez” (pages 247-248).

In the case of the wind that exposed the ridge in the bed of the sea, the consequences were dramatic. Suddenly the Israelites, traveling on foot, had an immense advantage over the Egyptian chariots that were pursuing them. Their wheels became stuck in the mud. The charioteers made ferocious efforts to free them, only to find that they quickly became mired again. The Egyptian army could neither advance nor retreat. So intent were they on the trapped wheels, and so reluctant were they to abandon their prized war machines, the chariots, that they failed to notice that the wind had dropped and the water was returning. By the time they realized what was happening, they were trapped. The ridge was now covered with seawater in either direction, and the island of dry land in the middle was shrinking by the minute. The mightiest army of the ancient world was defeated, and its warriors drowned, not by a superior army, not by human opposition at all, but by its own folly in being so focused on capturing the Israelites that they ignored the fact that they were driving into mud where their chariots could not go.

We have here two ways of seeing the same events: one natural, the other supernatural. The supernatural explanation – that the waters stood upright – is immensely powerful, and so it entered Jewish memory. But the natural explanation is no less compelling. The Egyptian strength proved to be their weakness. The weakness of the Israelites became their strength. On this reading, what was significant was less the supernatural than the moral dimension of what happened. G-d visits the sins on the sinners. He mocks those who mock Him. He showed the Egyptian army, which reveled in its might that the weak were stronger than they – just as He later did with the pagan prophet Bilam, who prided himself in his prophetic powers and was then shown that his donkey (who could see the angel that Bilam could not see) was a better prophet than he was.

To put it another way, a miracle is not necessarily something that suspends natural law. It is, rather, an event for which there may be a natural explanation, but which – happening when, where and how it did – evokes wonder, such that even the most hardened sceptic senses that G-d has intervened in history. The weak are saved; those in danger, delivered. More significantly still is the moral message such an event conveys: that hubris is punished by nemesis; that the proud are humbled and the humble given pride; and that there is justice in history, often hidden but sometimes gloriously revealed.

Not all Jewish thinkers focused on the supernatural dimension of G-d’s involvement in human history. Maimonides, for example, writes this: “The Israelites did not believe in Moses our teacher because of the miraculous signs he performed. When someone’s faith is founded on miraculous signs, there is always a lingering doubt in the mind that these signs may have been performed with magic or witchcraft. All the signs Moses performed in the wilderness, he did because they were necessary, not to establish his credentials as a prophet” (Yesodei ha-Torah, 8:1).

What made Moses the greatest of the prophets, says Maimonides, is not that he performed supernatural deeds but that, at Mount Sinai, he brought the people the word of G-d.

Nachmanides, with a somewhat different approach, emphasizes the phenomenon he calls a “hidden miracle,” an event that, though consistent with the laws of nature, is no less wondrous: the existence of the universe, the fact that we are here, the sustenance and shelter with which we are provided, and so on. “G-d,” said Einstein, “does not play dice with the universe.” The astonishing complexity of life, and the sheer improbability of existence (nowadays known as the anthropic principle), are miracles disclosed by science, not challenged by science.

The genius of the biblical narrative of the crossing of the Reed Sea is that it does not resolve the issue one way or another. It gives us both perspectives. To some the miracle was the suspension of the laws of nature. To others, the fact that there was a naturalistic explanation did not make the event any less miraculous. That the Israelites should arrive at the sea precisely where the waters were unexpectedly shallow, that a strong east wind should blow when and how it did, and that the Egyptians’ greatest military asset should have proved their undoing – all these things were wonders, and we have never forgotten them.

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.