The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit L

Reedy marsh west of the Suez Canal

Reedy marsh west of the Suez Canal. The ancient site and contours of Lake Ballah were disrupted by construction of the canal. Photo by Michael Luddetti for ABR.

Two-thirds of the way through The Exodus Decoded, viewers find filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici attempting to pin down the location of the Yam Suf, the biblical “Sea of Reeds” through which, according to the book of Exodus, the Israelites passed on dry ground to escape the pursuing Egyptians. Jacobovici proposes that the now-drained (mostly) Lake Ballah is the body of water—much fuller and more extensive in ancient times—that the Israelites crossed. He may well be right; James Hoffmeier, interviewed in The Exodus Decoded, has (along with other scholars) advocated this view for some years. On the other hand, other scholars have proposed other sites; Otto Eissfeldt and Martin Noth would identify the Sea of Reeds with Lake Sirbonis, north of Lake Ballah, and Umberto Cassuto would identify it with the Bitter Lakes, south of Lake Ballah. It’s fair to say that there isn’t now, and hasn’t been for a hundred years, a consensus on this question. One could make a very good case for Lake Ballah; someone who presented persuasive evidence one way or the other on this question would do the scholarly and believing communities (which overlap, of course) a great service.

However, much of what Jacobovici claims regarding Lake Ballah and the biblical crossing of the Yam Suf follows in the vein of his other misguided assertions. In an earlier installment in this series, I detailed Jacobovici’s misuse of the El-Arish Inscription. To that, Jacobovici adds another error, by mis-transliterating transliterated Arabic into erroneous Hebrew. On-screen captions in The Exodus Decoded claim that “Lake El Balah … in Hebrew means … the Lake Where God Devoured.” It’s preposterous, however, to suppose that the name “Lake el-Balah” preserves a Hebrew phrase. If we seek a “meaning” in the lake’s name, we undoubtedly should look for an Arabic term underlying the name “Lake el-Balah.” I’m unskilled in Arabic and won’t pretend to know the derivation of “Ballah,” but two quick points deserve attention. First, el in Arabic is usually just the definite article (“the”), not a divine name (compare Cairo’s wekalet el balah, “market of the dates”). Second, every credible source I’ve discovered simply gives the lake’s name as “Ballah,” not “El Balah.” I don’t know where Jacobovici got the el element. Jacobovici may well have—like numerous others before him—correctly identified the Yam Suf by identifying it with Lake Ballah, but his linguistic argument doesn’t successfully support this identification.

Turning from linguistics back to science, Jacobovici claims, “Identifying the precise location of Yam Suf means that we can finally explain the miracle of the parting of the sea.” According to Jacobovici’s scenario, the cascading seismic activity set off by the pre-eruption earthquake beneath Santorini now caused the Nile delta region to start sliding into the Mediterranean Sea. Taking this “burden” off of the African (tectonic) plate allowed the plate to rise by 1–1.5 meters, Jacobovici claims. “In other words, the sea parted.” Try to picture what Jacobovici suggests here: the Delta drops while inland areas rise, such that “Water would have cascaded from higher ground to lower ground, and drained from pools and sinkholes, creating dry land for the Israelites to cross.” Of course, this doesn’t explain the drowning of the Egyptians. For that, Jacobovici posits that “further seismic activity, or another collapse of the delta, would have sent a major tsunami crashing against the coast.” Once again, Jacobovici’s “expert” on this is Charles Pellegrino, who claims, “And that’s exactly the description that we do have in the Bible.”

I don’t know plate tectonics and such well enough to judge the geophysical plausibility of Jacobovici’s scenario, though I confess my skepticism. However, I certainly watched the program attentively enough to note that Jacobovici has no actual geophysical evidence for any such earthquake or tsunami, or for the alleged earthquake storm that perpetuated it. As with his “scientific” explanations for all the other plagues, the logic is circular: “The biblical text describes such-and-such, which could be explained by thus-and-so; therefore, thus-and-so happened, causing such-and-such.” The only evidence for the scenario is the notion that the alleged phenomena could produce effects similar to those described in the Bible. Yet even this latter claim raises serious difficulties, for—contrary to Pellegrino’s assertions—the picture painted by Jacobovici and Pellegrino does not in fact match the biblical description. Here’s how the Bible describes the miracle at the sea:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Exodus 14:21–29, NRSV)

Jacobovici’s scenario doesn’t allow for “walls” of water on the Israelites’ right and left. Jacobovici’s scenario involves an earthquake rather than a “strong east wind”—and I think that ancient Israelites could tell the difference between these two phenomena (see 1 Kings 19:11 if you are tempted to disagree). Jacobovici’s scenario involves a large excess of water pouring in from the north, while the biblical story has the sea “return[ing] to its normal depth.” The simple fact is that the phenomena described in Jacobovici’s scenario do not match the phenomena described in the biblical story. Two factors make this particularly important: first, Jacobovici claims precisely that his scenario explains the miracle as described in the Bible, and second, Jacobovici’s only evidence for any such plate rising or tsunami or earthquake storm is the biblical story itself, which of course provides no such evidence. Jacobovici starts from the biblical story, invents an explanation for a different set of phenomena, and then claims that his explanation exposes “the science behind the miracles.” Evaluating his “science” takes more geophysical knowledge than I command, but the disconnects between his scenario and the story he claims to be explaining are plain for anyone to see.