Parshat Beshalach: Rational Explanations for Miracles Don’t Take Away Their Wonders
The splitting of the Red Sea is engraved in Jewish memory. We recite it daily during the morning service, and 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. (Ex. 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. (Ex. 14:21)
Here there is not a sudden change in the behavior of water. Instead, God 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.” (Ex. 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.
Viewed from this perspective, the events that took place could be described as follows: The Israelites had arrived at the Red 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 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.
Suddenly the Israelites, traveling on foot, had an immense advantage over the Egyptian chariots that were pursuing them. The chariots’ 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, 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 sea water 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 — in fact, not by human opposition at all — but by their 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 Egyptians’ strength proved to be their weakness. The weakness of the Israelites became their strength. In this reading, God 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 Bilaam, who prided himself in his prophetic powers and was then shown that his donkey (who could see the angel that Bilaam 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 that — happening when, where, and how it did — evokes wonder, such that even the most hardened skeptic senses that God has intervened in history.
This idea can be taken further. Emil Fackenheim has spoken of “epoch-making events” that transform the course of history. More obscurely, but along similar lines, the French philosopher Alain Badiou has proposed the concept of an “event” as a “rupture in ontology” through which individuals are brought face to face with a truth that changes them and their world. It is through transformative events that we feel ourselves addressed — summoned — by something beyond history. In this sense, the division of the Red Sea was something other and deeper than a suspension of the laws of nature. It was the transformative moment at which the people “believed in the Lord and in Moses His servant” (Ex. 14:31), and called themselves “the people You acquired” (Ex. 15:16).
Not all Jewish thinkers focused on the supernatural dimension of God’s involvement in human history. Maimonides insisted that “Israel did not believe in Moses our teacher because of the signs he performed.” What made Moses the greatest of the prophets, for Maimonides, is not that he performed supernatural deeds but that, at Mount Sinai, he brought the people the word of God.
In general, the sages tended to downplay the dimension of the miraculous, even in the case of the greatest miracle of all, the division of the sea. That is the meaning of the following Midrash, commenting on the verse, “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its full flow [le-eitano]” (Ex.14:27).
We even find an extraordinary debate among the sages as to whether miracles are a sign of merit or the opposite. The Talmud tells the story of a man whose wife died, leaving a nursing child. The father was too poor to be able to afford a wet-nurse, so a miracle occurred and he himself gave milk until the child was weaned. On this, the Talmud records the following difference of opinion:
Rav Joseph said: Come and see how great was this man that such a miracle was wrought for him. Abaye said to him: On the contrary, how inferior was this man, that the natural order was changed for him.
According to Abaye, greater are those to whom good things happen without the need for miracles. The genius of the Biblical narrative of the crossing of the Red 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.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He currently serves as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor at New York University.