Understanding The ‘Splitting of the Sea’

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Originally Published in The Finger Lakes Times

Splitting the Red Sea. COURTESY: http://www.theology21.com

Last month, we ended a discussion about the philosophy of divine punishment with reference to Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) victory over Pharaoh. The “splitting of the sea” was referenced and deserved its own discussion, to which we now turn.

Before analyzing the specific events surrounding the “splitting of the sea,” the reader must understand that Islam argues that divine punishment occurs within the confines of natural laws. Islam completely rejects any interpretation which requires one to abandon belief in established scientific laws. If God has created everything, why must He break the natural laws He created to create a natural disaster? Indeed, 750 Quranic verses reference scientific principles precisely to demonstrate harmony between God’s Word and Act.

As to specifics, the Qur’an does not support the idea that the Red Sea split into two enormous walls of water through which Moses crossed. Instead, the Quran (44:25) states that Moses took advantage of the changing of tides – crossing at ebb tide, when the water recedes so much that one can cross by foot. Here, the Quran employs the word rahwan, which means “calm” as well as “an intervening space” – an apt description of the receding tide. According to the Quran, God told Prophet Moses to cross during the time of low tide, “Then We revealed to Moses, saying, ‘Strike the sea with thy rod.’ Thereupon it parted, and every part looked like a huge sand-hill” (26:64). Pharaoh, following at some distance with chariots and heavy armaments, arrived at the Red Sea after Moses had already crossed and fell victim to the rising tide (26:65-67). In fact, the scientific periodical PLoS ONE recently published an article on the plausibility of this event, particularly examining a phenomenon known as “wind setdown.” In addition, not only is the account scientifically tenable, but the French revolutionary Napoleon survived a similar experience during his life.

Pharaoh’s end, however, was designed to serve as a lesson for all time. Thus, the Quran declares that, despite the flood, Pharaoh’s body will be preserved, “So this day We will save thee in thy body alone that thou mayest be a Sign to those who come after thee. And surely, many of mankind are heedless of Our Signs” (10:93). This declaration is unique to the Quran. It is also remarkable that this declaration was recorded 1,400 years ago amongst the Arabs – a people who only knew that Pharaoh had perished and had no knowledge of the process of mummification. In the late 1800s, Egyptologists discovered Pharaoh’s body, confirming what the Quran had prophesied more than 1,000 years prior.

But aside from an argument in support of the Qur’an’s authenticity, what lesson does this event serve and what relation does it have to our explanation of the phenomenon of divine punishment? The Quran (10:91-92) records that as the water engulfed him, Pharaoh said he wished to be saved because he now submits to the God of Moses. But Pharaoh’s chance had passed, and his soul could not be redeemed. His body, however, would be saved as a reminder for later generations to never obstruct and persecute a prophet and his people.

Having explained Islam’s view of the “splitting of the sea,” one may be mislead into thinking that one must always interpret events within the confines of prevailing scientific knowledge. This is not the case. Islam argues that God does not need to break a law in order to act. When an event such as the “splitting of the sea” occurs, it can rightly be described as a miracle – i.e. an unveiling of a hitherto unknown law. Regarding this discussion, we continue next month.

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