Red Sea Parting, Jonah, and miracles in general
Published: 3 November 2013 (GMT+10)
What actually happened with some of the most dramatic miracles in the true history revealed in the Bible? For that matter, why should we bother explaining anything taught in the Bible, unless we can explain everything?
Matthew S. from Australia writes:
I hope this is the correct place to post my question. I want to know why we (creationists) try and prove aspects of the Bible to be plausible if we can’t prove all of them. For example, we have to attribute the parting of the red sea to a miracle, however we try and explain how Jonah survived in a fish.
Why do we bother explaining anything, if we can’t explain everything?
Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds:
Dear Mr S.
Thank you for your questions, which I will answer under three headings.
Red Sea parting
Certainly the Red Sea parting was a stupendous event. This produced a dry strip over which the Israelites could flee from Pharaoh’s army (see also Could so many Israelites have crossed the Red Sea?). In the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ that typifies theological liberalism, there are ideas that it was a very shallow strip of water a few inches deep. However, the text says that there was a ‘wall’ of water on both the left and right (Exodus 14:22). The Hebrew word for ‘wall’ is chômāh (חומה), which is used to describe walls of a city, citadel, fortress, temple, and the like.1 It must have been deep water to produce such walls. Also, one wonders how Pharaoh’s army could have drowned in a few inches of water.
Although you say, “we (creationists)”, I’m not sure which creationists you speak for, when it comes to particular miracles. The Bible tells us what happened with the Red Sea Parting:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. (Exodus 14:21)
According to this clear text, the means God used to achieve his end (goal) of the Red Sea parting was a powerful air current flowing for many hours. It’s well known in physics and chemistry that one can often trade intensity of an effect (heat, electrical current, and in this case air flow) for time. Because of the long time frame, less intensity was needed. This would keep the wind bearable for the people on the ground.
Modern science has caught up with the Bible, since recent experiments suggest that a long and strong wind could indeed have formed a land bridge:
Now computer simulations show that a stiff wind blowing from the east for 12 hours could have given the Israelites a land bridge that allowed them to escape Egypt over 3000 years ago.
The 5-kilometre width of the cleared mud flats might have offered enough space for a few hundred thousand Israelites to cross, but against winds raging at 100 kilometres per hour, they probably would have needed most of their 4-hour window to walk the 3 or 4-kilometres to the opposite shore.
“Nobody’s going to enjoy it,” says Carl Drews of the National Center for Atmospheric Research at Boulder, Colorado, one of the researchers who has simulated the Israelite-friendly wind. “But if the alternative is to be killed by the pharaoh’s soldiers, they’d do it.2
Furthermore, the ground there would not be that muddy, but rather sandy, so it has good drainage. Indeed, you can drive on some beaches during low tide. Daytona Beach in Florida is famous for car racing. Also, wind is very good for drying.3 An east wind heated and dried by the Arabian Desert—from the east—would be even more effective. So I see no reason why this unique wind that God sent couldn’t have done at least as much as New Scientist admitted.
The justification for a secular journal to publish such an article may have been the mistaken belief that such a suggestion serves to downplay the miraculous. However this is not so. Scripture makes it clear that God used the wind to help accomplish His purposes, and it was a unique wind, possibly miraculously originated. See also The ten plagues of Egypt: Miracles or ‘Mother Nature’? There is nothing wrong with scientific explanations—as long as they are consistent with the biblical description (see Materialist ‘defence’ of Bible fails).
Indeed, since the Bible reveals only the wind as God’s means, we should look to the aerodynamic properties of the air flow to explain the results. Similarly, when it comes to the Flood, it is logical to explain the rock layers, fossils, and erosion by the hydrodynamic properties of water, rather than look for other miracles. There is a compromising view that tries to mix long ages and a global Flood called the ‘tranquil flood’ theory. This proposes that although the Bible states that God used water to drown all the animals, the water somehow had no other effect and left no traces—contrary to 2 Peter 3:3–5. Actually, this view is irrational to anyone with an inkling of the destructive power of large amounts of moving water. Indeed, it would require a stupendous miracle to keep the Flood tranquil, and the Bible provides no hint of this.
However, to be frank, some Bible commentators have adopted an idea that is similar in principle, which I call the ‘tranquil wind’ theory. That is, just as the tranquil flood proponents underestimate the power of water and thus its explanatory power, the tranquil wind supporters fail to understand what wind can do. E.g. the great commentary by John Gill says:
No wind of itself, without the exertion and continuance of almighty power, in a miraculous way, could have so thrown the waves of the sea on heaps, and retained them so long, that such a vast number of people should pass through it as on dry land; though this was an instrument Jehovah made use of, and that both to divide the waters of the sea, and to dry and harden the bottom of it, and make it fit for travelling, as follows:
and made the sea dry land; or made the bottom of it dry, so that it could be trod and walked upon with ease, without sinking in, sticking fast, or slipping about, which was very extraordinary:
and the waters were divided; or “after the waters were divided” …4
Note: Gill resorts to additional miracles because he can’t think of how water could have been held back so long. The text says nothing about God using a wind plus other miracles, and neither does the text limit the power of the wind. Indeed, if we want to go down that route, then the strong and very persistent wind that God sent was almost incidental, and one wonders why it was sent at all.
Of course, God could have parted the Red Sea by a pure miracle. But the issue is not what God could have done, but what the Bible says He did. And the text says that He used a wind. Indeed, God could have instantaneously teleported the Israelites to the Promised Land and caused the Egyptian army to vanish. But He did not.
Similarly, to wipe out the evil civilization of Noah’s Day, God did not have to use the pre-existing waters of the “fountains of the great deep” and rain (Genesis 7:11), but could have created the water miraculously. For that matter, He could have simply levitated Noah above the water rather than bothered with the Ark, or popped the evil people out of existence. But His chosen means in both cases were signs that also maintained a continuity in the way He upholds nature, and provided a lasting lesson.
Jonah and the great sea creature
When it comes to this miracle, Jesus affirmed that it really did happen, and was just as real as His future resurrection. So it would be most problematic for any Christians to disagree with Him (compare Theistic Evolution and the Kenotic Heresy). As Dr Randy Alcorn pointed out:
When I hear Christians say that Jonah really wasn’t swallowed by a fish, because that’s just impossible, I consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:40: ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ So I guess if it wasn’t true about Jonah, we don’t need to believe in Christ’s literal death, burial, and resurrection either, right? And more to the point, why should we believe Christ’s claim to be the truth and speak the truth and ‘I and the Father are one’ if He naively believed in what was false—that Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish?
Furthermore, Jesus continued (Matthew 12:41):
The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.
If the Ninevites really hadn’t repented, then how could this be an example for the Israelites of Jesus’s day to follow? This account is good support for a miraculous event—why would a Hebrew prophet be able to scare the most powerful nation of its day, Assyria, into such abject repentance? However, if it had become widely known that Jonah had been vomited out of a huge sea creature, this might have been a sign that Jonah was an emissary from the almighty God.5
About what the fish was, the Hebrew phrase in Jonah 1:17 is dāg gādôl (דג גדול). Gādôl is the normal word for ‘great’, including magnitude, number, fear, importance, or age.6 Dāg is the normal word for ‘fish’, which was any generic swimming creature. The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation made in the 2nd century BC, renders the phrase based on the root words κήτος (kētos) and μέγας (megas). The New Testament here follows the LXX in using kētos.
Megas (and megalo–) means ‘large’, and this is found in many English words today. Kētos gives rise to the English word ‘cetacean’, meaning whale, dolphin, or porpoise. This would explain the KJV translation ‘whale’, which was also the largest sea creature of which they were aware. However, Kētos itself means any huge sea creature.7
While there are a number of both living and extinct large sea creatures that could swallow a man whole, the text says that YHWH ‘appointed’ or ‘prepared’ the great sea creature. The Hebrew verb is mānā’ (מנא), which is used several times in the book of Jonah:
- And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. (1:17)
- Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head … (4:6).
- But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered (4:7).
So as we said in Jonah and the great fish:
The words imply either a special act of creation, or of modification of an existing sea creature to accommodate Jonah safely.
Why we should try to explain biblical teachings
Your last line is highly problematic. If your argument were applied consistently, we would need to give up science too. Why should we try to prove one scientific claim unless we can prove them all (leaving aside for the moment about whether science proves or disproves something). For that matter, why should you accept that a particular $10 note is genuine unless you can prove that every possible $10 note is?
Also, there is an important apologetic angle: we can ask the biblioskeptics: you claim that the biblical miracle X is impossible. But unless you can prove that all biblical miracles are impossible, why do you waste your time trying to disprove this particular miracle X? If we can show that this miracle is plausible, it shows that the skeptics’ dogmatism is misplaced, and thus his case against miracles in general. See also Miracles and science. It’s also important to note that miracle claims are really the province of history rather than science.
Finally, the Apostle Peter commanded Christians:
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). He didn’t say, “Give an answer only if you are able to provide answers to all possible questions.” Indeed, we could not, because that would require infinite knowledge and wisdom, and this belongs only to God, not to any creature.
References and notes
- Brown–Driver–Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB), חוֺמָה, biblesuite.com/hebrew/2346.htm. Return to text.
- How wind may have parted the sea for Moses, New Scientist, 22 September 2010; newscientist.com. Return to text.
- At the surface of a liquid, it is in equilibrium with its vapour. That means there is an equal number of water molecules moving from liquid phase to the gas phase as the reverse. However, a wind sweeps away the water molecules in the gas phase. Thus more water must evaporate to restore the equilibrium. Return to text.
- biblehub.com/exodus/14-21.htm. Return to text.
- There was a known Philistine and Mesopotamian fertility god called Dagon, mentioned in the Old Testament several times. One theory goes that this was a fish God, and the name Dāḡôn (דגון) is indeed similar to dāg (דג), fish. Under this idea, this was yet another case of the true God YHWH showing His superiority over the false gods of the pagans by over-ruling in their alleged domain. But Dagon was historically regarded as a fertility god, and the notion that he was a fish god seems to be a medieval Jewish tradition. Return to text.
- BDB, גָּדוֺל, biblesuite.com/hebrew/1419.htm. Return to text.
- Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, κῆτος, says, “a sea-monster, whale, huge fish (Homer, Aristotle, others)”, biblesuite.com/greek/2785.htm. Return to text.