It took a stormy night and a strategically placed reef to pull off the biblical miracle of the parting of the waters of the Red Sea when the Jews fled slavery in Egypt, according to a new study by two Russian mathematicians.
A number of researchers around the world have tried to determine the probability of such an event taking place and to calculate the odds, but Naum Volzinger, a senior researcher at St. Petersburg's Institute of Oceanology, and a colleague based in Hamburg, Alexei Androsov, decided instead to study the conditions needed for the miracle to happen.
"I am convinced that God rules the Earth through the laws of physics," Volzinger said in a telephone interview.
"In purely professional terms, I can say that it [the study] was done through a system of differential equations."
The six-month study, published in the Bulletin of the Russian Academy of Sciences, focuses on a reef that runs from the well-documented starting point of the Jews' escape to the north side of the sea. In biblical times, the reef was much closer to the surface, Volzinger said.
The questions the researchers were interested in answering included what wind speed was needed to leave the reef high and dry at low tide, how long the reef could stay dry, and how quickly the waters would return.
"If the wind blew all night at a speed of 30 meters per second, then the reef would be dry," said Volzinger, who specializes in various ocean phenomena, including flooding and tidal waves.
"It would take the Jews -- there were 600,000 of them -- four hours to cross the seven-kilometer reef that runs from one coast to another. Then, in half an hour, the waters would come back," he said.
To Jews and Christians alike, the parting of the Red Sea was nothing short of a miracle. "And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided," reads the biblical book of Exodus. "And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon dry ground: The waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left."
The pursuing Egyptian army tried to follow but drowned in the sea.
Mark Grubarg, the head of the Jewish community in St. Petersburg, said the spiritual value of this miracle is immense for Jews. It is mentioned in the Shema, a prayer said by religious Jews three times a day. "Jews were the first nation in history to accept monotheism, but they could hardly assert it while in slavery in Egypt," Grubarg said. "God told them to return to the Promised Land, and this is why it was so important. When the Jews reached the sea, they needed a miracle to complete their journey, and they were granted that miracle as a reward for their strong faith. The idea of monotheism is reflected in the Shema prayer."
The event has long preoccupied people's minds. Medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas, among others, argued that the parting of the Red Sea was possible.
Volzinger said he and Androsov studied the issue "strictly from Isaac Newton's point of view."
Yet he acknowledged the religious importance of the miracle. "To fulfill their historical mission, the Jews needed to return to a free land," he said.
Volzinger said he and Androsov have not informed any religious organizations about their findings and have not received any reaction yet.
But the parting of the Red Sea, he said, is not likely to happen again -- the reef has been severed to create a passage for ships and the water is now much deeper. Unless, that is, another miracle occurs.
I think it's both funny and interesting, no matter what you believe.