Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Parting the Red Sea

One of the points that I make all the time is that when magical spells influence the physical world they generally act through some sort of physical medium. In other words, you can usually look at the set of circumstances leading up to the manifestation of a particular magical goal and identify what the physical mechanism was. Those circumstances often prove to be collections of unlikely occurrences that surround the goals of the spell, but they nonetheless generally conform to accepted laws of physical reality. This is true of miracles as well - after all, a miracle is simply a magical operation that results in some sort of dramatic success.

One of the most famous miracles in Biblical history is the parting of the Red Sea, said to have been performed by Moses during the exodus from Egypt. I've noted elsewhere that one of the dangers of relying on Biblical history is that the Torah was most likely only written down around 538 BCE following the Babylonian Captivity, and thus had to summarize nearly a thousand years of oral tradition. The accuracy of such a summary is always going to be hit or miss - for example, historical evidence suggests that the Jews were never slaves in Egypt. And while there is a brief notation in the written Egyptian histories referring to a group of people who left to settle in the lands further east around the time given for the exodus, there is no mention of pursuit by Pharaoh's armies or any significant unrest that accompanied this group's departure. Still, it's not much of a stretch to imagine that an event as dramatic as the parting of a sea might have seemed so incredible that it would be hard to forget.

Scientists have now worked out a model that offers a possible mechanism for the crossing detailed in the book of Exodus. It relies, first of all, on correcting a simple translation error in the story. The Hebrew that is rendered into English as "Red Sea" in some translations of the Bible in fact means "sea of reeds," and most experts believe that it refers to an area further north toward the Mediterranean Sea that includes part of the Nile delta. This is a region of marshy lakes and lagoons much shallower than the Red Sea proper. The mechanism is a phenomenon called wind setdown, that has been proposed as a possible explanation since the nineteenth century. This fits the text well - the description in Exodus claims that the water was driven back by a "mighty east wind" that blew throughout the night.

Computer simulations, part of a larger study on how winds affect water, show wind could push water back at a point where a river bent to merge with a coastal lagoon, the team at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado at Boulder said.

"The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus," Carl Drews of NCAR, who led the study, said in a statement.

"The parting of the waters can be understood through fluid dynamics. The wind moves the water in a way that's in accordance with physical laws, creating a safe passage with water on two sides and then abruptly allowing the water to rush back in."

Religious texts differ a little in the tale, but all describe Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt ahead of a pharaoh's armies around 3,000 years ago. The Red Sea parts to let Moses and his followers pass safely, then crashes back onto the pursuers, drowning them.

Drews and colleagues are studying how Pacific Ocean typhoons can drive storm surges and other effects of strong and sustained winds on deep water.

His team pinpointed a possible site south of the Mediterranean Sea for the legendary crossing, and modeled different land formations that could have existed then and perhaps led to the accounts of the sea appearing to part.

The model requires a U-shaped formation of the Nile River and a shallow lagoon along the shoreline. It shows that a wind of 63 miles per hour, blowing steadily for 12 hours, could have pushed back waters 6 feet deep.

"This land bridge is 3-4 km (2 to 2.5 miles) long and 5 km (3 miles) wide, and it remains open for 4 hours," they wrote in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

"People have always been fascinated by this Exodus story, wondering if it comes from historical facts," Drews said. "What this study shows is that the description of the waters parting indeed has a basis in physical laws."

And, I would point out, a basis in magick theory, since the land bridge formed at the precise moment that it was needed. This implies that Moses may very well have been a weather worker who conjured the wind in order to make the crossing. 63 miles per hour is indeed a mighty east wind, and summoning it out of a clear sky still would have been just about impossible. But there's an additional key point in the story:

And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness [to them], but it gave light by night [to these]: so that the one came not near the other all the night. 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.

That "pillar of cloud" sounds just like a thunderstorm, and I can tell you from my own experience that summoning a high wind out of a thunderstorm is well within the power of a decent weather worker - like, say, me. And it wouldn't surprise me to find that a number of people reading this blog could do it as well. You read that right - one of the most famous miracles in history might very well be something that a decent percentage of skilled magicians could accomplish.

I guess now I need to get started on raising the dead.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble


Unknown said...

63mph? Dude if you can conjure a hurricane in the desert, I just found a whole new bar to measure up to.

Scott Stenwick said...

Well, I highly doubt I could do it on a calm day. However, if there's a storm going on or moving in I'm pretty good at raising or lowering the intensity of the winds, making them change directions, and so forth. And the Bible account sounds to me like there was in fact a storm going on when the crossing happened.

Keep in mind, too, that wind from the east is the strongest in Sinai and Egypt, and that wind setdown of the magnitude needed for the model to work happens every so often as part of the natural weather pattern in that part of the world. That means the probability shift required to produce the effect on command is going to be lower than you might think at first. From Wikipedia:

"Major-General Sir Alexander Bruce Tulloch witnessed a wind setdown event on Lake Manzala [One of the lakes in the 'sea of reeds' area - AQ] in 1882. While he was surveying along the Suez Canal, a gale from the east blew in and continued overnight. In the morning he reported that Lake Manzala had receded 7 miles to the northwest, driven there by the force of the wind. The lake-bed was now mud, and the local fishermen were walking about among their grounded boats."

I'm speculating that I might be able to do it, of course, based on working with the weather here in the Midwest where I live. But believe me, if I'm ever in that part of the world I'm going to give it a try and get some empirical data on how hard it really is to do.