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Morris Silver
Economics Department
City College of New York

Ancient Economies I analyzes more or less standard problems in historical economics. Ancient Economies II deals with more speculative matters such as the economic content in ancient mythology. Again, contributions by interested scholars are invited.

Topic A:Making a Case for a Technological Interpretation of the Parting of the Sea in Exodus

Much current scholarship dismisses the biblical account of the Exodus. Thus, for Ahlström (1986:Ch. 5) the entire account is "mythological historiography" whose authorship should be dated as far after the Exile as possible. On the other hand, as Hoffmeier (1997:214) explains, mythological terminology and symbols may be employed "with reference to historical reality, not concocted events." Further, even if an account is "late" it may still be fundamentally accurate. The problem with the rejectionist approach is that it shreds the surviving documents instead of making a determined effort to extract historical evidence from them. That such evidence is available is, for example, demonstrated in a recent article by Krahmalkov (1994) supporting the historical relevance of the Exodus itinerary in Numbers 33:45b-50).¹

This little study begins by accepting the possibility that, as in the case of other ancient literary documents, real events lie behind the legendary account of the Exodus and, more specifically, the tradition of the parting of the sea. Something happened that made a very big difference to future generations. In his recent study, Hoffmeier (1997:226) surveys the evidence and reaches the conclusion that "the main points of the Israel in Egypt and exodus narratives are indeed plausible." However, Hoffmeier (1997:215) considers that

The scope of this book does not permit me to delve into the phenomenon of the miracle at the sea, but I am sympathetic with Bright, who observed, "If Israel saw in this the hand of God, the historian certainly has no evidence to contradict it!"
I am utterly unsympathetic to this unhistorical and unnecessary position. Hoffmeier relies on circumstantial evidence in his excellent testing of the exodus account and one can do the same for the episode of the parting of the sea.

In 1981 Hans Goedicke, the eminent Johns Hopkins Egyptologist, made news by suggesting that the events in the Bible coincided with volcanic eruptions at Thera which set off extensive coastal flooding in Egypt (see Foster and Rittner 1996; Wiener and Allen 1998). The fleeing Israelites had taken defensive positions on high ground while the pursuing Egyptian forces were engulfed. Despite its "controversial" nature, Goedicke's theory had the advantage for the historian of accounting for the events at the Reed Sea without resorting to divine intervention. But the parting of the sea is made to depend on a completely fortuitous natural phenomenon. (For a recent discussions of natural factors in the crossing of the Reed Sea, see Segert 1994.)

The present study examines the evidence to see whether it might permit an inference that the parting of the sea was the result of deliberate actions taken by the fleeing Israelites: After crossing a relatively dry Reed Sea the Israelites opened a canal lock and blocked the path of their well-armed pursuers.

In the case of the parting of the sea which most scholars regard as "pure mythology," any attempt to test a historical hypothesis is suspect, to say the least. Nevertheless, given the endless fascination with this subject, it seems to me to be worth trying. I will try to bring together evidence bearing on the question of whether the parting of the sea might have been the result of opening a canal lock. The evidence will of course be circumstantial and inconclusive but it should be capable of refuting my hypothesis even if it cannot confirm it. The critic may well decide that at best I have added one more legend to an already legendary account.

1. Central Biblical Texts
The central biblical facts of the parting of the sea are the following.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:"Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn back and encamp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon, over against it you shall encamp by the sea. ... And the Egyptians pursued after them ... and overtook them encamping by the sea, before Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon. (Exodus 14.1-9; see also Numbers 33.7-8)

Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all the night, and turned the sea into dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians came in pursuit after them into the sea, all of the Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and horsemen. . . . Then the Lord said to Moses, "Hold out your arm over the sea, that the waters may come back over the Egyptians . . ." Moses held out his arm over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal state . . . The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen--Pharaoh's entire army that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. (Ex. 14.21-8)

I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. . . . Pharaoh's chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; And the pick of his officers are drowned in the Sea of Reeds. . . . At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood straight like a wall [literally, "like a mound of earth]. . . The foe said, I will pursue, I will overtake . . . You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them . . . (Ex. 15.1-10)

For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you crossed, just as the Lord your God did to the Sea of Reeds, which He dried up before us until we crossed. (Josh. 5.23)

And I brought your fathers out of Egypt; and you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued after your fathers with chariots and with horsemen to the Sea of Reeds. And when they cried out to the Lord, He put put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and brought the sea upon them, and covered them ...(Josh. 24.6-7)

But when they came up from Egypt, and Israel walked through the wilderness to the Reed Sea ... (Judg. 11.16)

Where is He that brought them up out of the sea . . .? That caused His glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses? That divided the water before them, to make Himself an everlasting name? That led them through the deep . . . without stumbling? (Isa. 63.11-13)

Marvelous things did He in the sight of their fathers, in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan. He cleaved the sea, and caused them to pass through; and He made the waters to stand as a heap. . . . They remembered not His hand, nor the day when he redeemed them from the adversary. How he set His signs in Egypt, and His wonders in the field of Zoan. . . . And He led them safely, and they feared not; but the sea overwhelmed their enemies. (Ps. 78.12-13, 42-3, 53-4)

When Israel came forth out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; Judah became His sanctuary, Israel His dominion. The sea saw it and fled; the Jordan turned backward. . . . What ails you, O sea, that you flee? (Ps. 114.1-5)
2. Exodus Route
The determination of the Exodus route is an industry in itself to which I have no desire to contribute. [See conveniently Kitchen "Goshen" and "Red Sea"and de Wit "Encampment by the Sea" in NBD (1982), Bietak (1987) and Hoffmeier (1997:esp. ch. 8).] Suffice to say that the biblical text seems to localize the parting of the sea in the eastern Delta region of Egypt.

More specifically, the action is placed in the immediate vicinity of the Wadi Tumilat which, according to Redford (1987:140), is designated tjekew in the Egyptian New Kingdom. Within the neighborhood of the Wadi Tumilat there are, understandably, differences about the precise location of the Sea of Reeds. Halpern (1992:111) situates it just E of Bubastis, between Lake Ballah and Lake Timsah to the S (see Gen. 46.28-9). According to Ps. 78.12, 43 (see Section 1), the Sea of Reeds is situated in the "field of Zoan," a city (Greek Tanis; Egyptian djanet) situated near the S shore of Lake Menzaleh in the NE Delta. The designation "field of Zoan" corresponds to the Egyptian sekhet djanet (Kitchen 1982:1282). The testimony of Psalms 78 cannot be excluded as inaccurate on the ground that it employs some anachronistic geographic terminology, which may, after all, have been knowingly introduced by historians for the benefit of the Israelite public. On the other hand, Bietak (1987:167) argues that Lake Ballah, S of Qantara is a "most likely" location for the Sea of Reeds.

3. What is the yam sûf "Sea of Reeds"?
The Hebrew word sûf refers to the reeds (papyrus) of Egypt in Ex. 2.3,5 and Is. 19.6. It is used for sea-weed in Jon. 2.6. The word is generally taken to be a loan from Egyptian tjefy "papyrus, papyrus thicket," first attested in New Egyptian (Lambdin 1953:153).

The eastern Delta where we place the parting of the sea is a region of freshwater marshes with flourishing papyrus (compare Hoffmeier 1997:209). There is, indeed, an Egyptian reference to a "Great Papyrus Marsh" located in the NE Delta between Tanis (Zoan), Qantara and the Suez Canal N of Ismailia, on the former Pelusiac arm of the Nile (Kitchen 1982:1014).

In the overwhelming number of cases the Bible refers only to the yam "sea" as the place of the miracle. The yam sûf is specified in Ex. 13.18, 15.4, 15.22, Josh. 4.23, 24.6, and Judg. 11.16. These mentions strongly support the proposition that the parting of the sea occurred at the yam sûf, not at some other sea. Also strengthening this localization is the use of yam and yam sûf in synonyomous parallelism in Joshua 24.6 and Exodus 15.4. The latter verse belongs, moreover, to the "Song at the Sea" (Ex. 15.1-19) which, in view of its numerous archaic features, is generally counted by scholars among the oldest passages in the Bible (Sarna 1991:75-6). Cross and Freedman (1997:32) maintain that the Song "is not archaizing, but archaic."

There are, however, difficulties to be considered (see Batto 1983 but compare Hoffmeier 1997:ch. 9).. There are biblical passages in which yam sûf must refer to the Red Sea (Ex. 23.31; Num. 21.4, 33.10-11; 1 Kin. 9.26; Jer. 49.21; see also Ex. 10.19; Num. 14.25; Deut. 1.40, 2.1). Sarna (1986:107-8) concludes that "Apparently the designation 'Sea of Reeds' was applied comprehensively to the entire network of lakes that skirted the wilderness in the northeast Delta region, as well as to the long, narrow strip of water that extends southeastward from Suez to the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb, and that separates the coasts of North Africa to the west from the Arabian Peninsula, including the two northern gulfs, Suez to the northwest and Aqaba to the northeast." Kitchen (1982:1014-15) adds:

That the term yam sup should have wider use for the two N arms of the Red Sea as well as the more restricted application to the line of reedy lakes from Suez N to Lake Menzaleh and the Mediterranean is not specially remarkable or unparalleled. About 1470 BC, for example, Egyp. texts of a single epoch can use the name Wadj-wer "Great Green (Sea)," of both the Mediterranean and Red Seas . . . and Ta-neter, "God's Land," of both Punt (E Sudan?) in particular and E lands generally.
Bradbury (1996:n.7, 38) adds that "Great Green" probably designated the Nile River as well as the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Hoffmeier (1997:207-14) also advances several cogent arguments in connection with this problem.
For me, the most troubling difficulty in neatly identifying "the Sea" of the parting with the "the Sea of Reeds" is raised by the exodus itinerary in Numbers 33. Numbers 33.8 has the Israelites cross "the Sea," but in Numbers 33.10 they reach "the Sea of Reeds?" = "Red Sea?" only after several more days of travel (see Section 6). All in all, however, the case for the Reed Sea in the eastern Delta as the parting sea is reasonably strong.

4. When the Exodus?
The Song at the Sea, as previously noted, refers to the Sea of Reeds and it represents, according to Sarna (1986:114), a genre of literature that

is the Hebrew counterpart of a literary phenomenon that first appears in Egypt in the period of the New Kingdom. It first emerges in mature form in the Kadesh Battle inscriptions of Rameses II [1290-1224], who is arguably the pharaoh of the oppression, and it is again featured in the Stele of Merneptah [1224-1214], the so-called Israel Stele.
Cross and Freedman (1997:32), however, maintain that the Song at the Sea "fits precisely into the pattern of old Canaanite and early Hebrew poetry."

Papyrus Leiden (348, vs. 6.6 and 349, r. 15) refers to`Apiru engaged in transporting stone for a building of Ramesses II. The `Apiru are a Semitic group and many scholars link the term to the Israelite word `ivri "Hebrew" (Halpern 1992:99 with n. 22, citing Caminos and Bottéro; Hoch 1994:62-3). Merneptah, the son of Ramesses II, whose Stele announces "[the people] Israel is desolate; it has no seed left" is a reasonable candidate for the pharaoh of the Exodus (Ahlström and Edelman 1985; Bruce 1982:529; Halpern 1992:101-3; Yurco 1997).

5. The Exodus Route and Canals Linking the Nile with the Red Sea
In their flight through the eastern Delta and the Wadi Tumilat region the Israelites would have crossed the routes of several historically and/or archaeologically attested "canals of the two seas."

a. Necho's and Darius' Canal
Herodotus (2.158) reports that Necho II (610-595)

began the making of the canal [from the Nile] into the Red Sea, which was finished by Darius the Persian. This was a four days' voyage in length, and it was dug wide enough for two triremes to move in it rowed abreast. It is fed by the Nile, and is carried from a little above Bubastis by the Arabian town of Patumus; it issues into the Red Sea. (Godley)
As described in the mid-fifth century BCE, this significant canal passed through the Wadi Tumilat and then turned S, along the course of the present canal, into the Gulf of Suez. Subsequent references to this canal are found in the first century BCE writers Diodorus Siculus (1.33.8-11) and Strabo (17.1.25).² Stelae of Darius I (521-486) commemorating his construction were found along the canal's route: the first at Tell el-Maskhutah, the second in the area where the Wadi Tumilat merges with the Isthmus of Suez, the third in the Kabret region in the Isthmus and the last apparently just N of contemporary Suez (Redmount 1995:128). The remains were some 150 feet wide and 16-17 feet deep (Oldfather 1933:n.2, 112). Possibly Darius began work at Maskhutah or, as Paice (1981:5) thinks more likely, Necho's canal "had silted up and needed major dredging and widening from Maskhutah to the Bitter Lakes." In this event, the route of Darius' canal may have been somewhat different than Necho's.

In trying to late-date the topographic material in the biblical accounts of the Sojourn and Exodus, Redford (1987:144) notes that the "route they are familiar with is that which traverses the same tract as Necho's canal, from Bubastis to the Bitter Lakes."

b. Ptolemy's Canal
Ptolemy II (285-247) also dug a canal of the two seas as is attested in Diodorus Siculus (1.33.11-12), Strabo (17.1.25), and the Pithom Stele for his Regnal Year 16 (Lloyd 1977:143). It seems, however, that he somewhat changed the course. The takeoff from the Nile was moved upstream from Bubastis to Phacussa and an interesting innovation (about which more shortly) was reportedly introduced at Arsinoe (D.S. 1.33.11-12; Str. 17.1.25).

Lloyd (1977:143) believes that "much of the work [on the canal] probably consisted in little more than widening and deepening an old fresh-water canal supplying the Wadi Tumilat area." Where Lloyd speaks of a fresh-water canal feeding the Wadi Tumilat, Bietak (1987:168) basing himself on surface contour surveys, places an overflow lake in the western half of the Wadi.

c. Evidence for Earlier Canals

i. Classical Writers²
In the mid-fourth century BCE Aristotle (Meteorology 1.15) said that "Sesostris" was the first to begin a canal crossing the Isthmus (cited by Redmount 1995:128). In the first century CE Pliny the Elder (6.33.165) wrote similarly that the canal project was "originally conceived by Sesostris" (Rackham) and Strabo (17.1.25; see also 1.2.31) speaks in uncertain if not legendary terms about a "canal [that] was first cut by Sesostris before the Trojan War" (Jones). Thus the classical writers seem to place a canal to the Red Sea (or at least its beginnings) in the Twelfth Dynasty under Senwosret I, II, or III (see Sayed 1983:35-6 and Hdt. 2.102).

ii. Egyptological and Archaeological
The Instruction for Merikare, in which a Tenth Dynasty Herakleopolitan king provides his son Merikare (an attested ruler) with information about the Delta, refers to a major canal serving as a barrier to Asiatics in lines 81, 99, and 105 (see Hoffmeier 1997:54-5). (The word translated as "canal" isdenat, about which more is to come.) "Merikare," known only from New Kingdom papyri, is set in the Tenth Dynasty, but may actually have been written in the Middle Kingdom (see Parkinson 1991). This, of course, would bring the canal closer to the time of "Sesostris" (see Hoffmeier 1997: 168-69).
But Petrie (1970:186), in a work first published in 1923, identifies the "Sesostris" of the classical writers with Ramesses II and he suggests that "The evidence seems to be that there was some kind of waterway to the Red Sea from the time of the XIXth dynasty . . ." Montet (1981:184), in a work first published in 1958, explicitly claims that Ramesses II expended great resources

in restoring the 'canal of the two seas' traces of which were discovered during the digging of the modern Sweet Water Canal. Its course was marked by the towns of Pi-Ramessu, Bubastis and Pithom and by the erection of granite stelae on lofty bases, which declared to the awe-struck navigators the glory of the king and the boldness of his conceptions.
For this description, Montet cites his earlier book Le Drame d'Avaris. In this work, published in 1941 (131-33), he reports on monuments of Ramesses II, including a fragment of a stele, found along the banks of the ancient canal, especially at Tel al-Retabah and at Tell el-Maskhutah at the entrance of the Wadi Tumilat. (For a convenient summary of the finds attributed to Ramesses II, see Redmount [1989, I:13-14, 126-27].) The findings are of course highly suggestive of an earlier canal, but there are no intact stelae inscriptions proclaiming that Ramesses II constructed a two-seas canal.

Redmount (1995:133-34) thinks the classical writers may "signal the existence of a much earlier canal," possibly in the time of Ramesses II:

It is doubtful, however, that this New Kingdom canal--if it existed--would have extended beyond Tell al-Retabah. At this time, the central and eastern portions of the Wadi, as well as the adjacent Isthmus of Suez, appear to have had a very limited occupation, and the labor and other costs of building and maintaining a canal through this area would have far outweighed any benefits. Ramses II had much better things to do with his resources. It is also possible that the technology needed for extending an operational canal through the Wadi and beyond was not available at this time.
Redmount does not tell us anything about the kind of technology that might have lacking in New Kingdom times, yet was available to Necho, Darius and Ptolemy. With respect to Redmount's assumptions concerning the ratio of benefits to costs it might be concluded that the canal was never built at all. Yet the evidence demonstrates that it was built in the first millennium BCE. Surely a two-seas canal cost a great deal, but so did the magnificent temples and stelae erected by Ramesses II. Further, in the case of easier access to Punt there were at least some tangible economic (and military) benefits. To judge by the historical evidence the rulers of Egypt valued highly the goods they received from Punt and, in addition, they were obviously achievement motivated. Holladay (1997:203-4), indeed, sees the settlement at Tell el-Maskhutah in Hyksos times as well-positioned for the caravan trade "bearing goods from South Arabia and the Far East: incense, spices, and equatorial African products" and he adds that "the South Arabian traffic was the main reason for settlement in the Wadi Tumilat during the Late Period, when a major canal was cut to expedite the trade." Thus, there is no reason to exclude the possibility that the benefits expected from a canal by Ramesses II exceeded his costs. We should be careful not to impose our personal (offhand) valuations of benefits on historical decision-makers and in so doing close off by fiat promising lines of investigation.

While working for the Geological Survey of Israel in the NE corner of the Delta three geologists, Sneh, Weissbrod and Perath (SWP), discovered remains of a defunct waterway, distinct from the remnants of Necho's canal. This "Eastern Canal," as they named it,

is quite clearly a man-made feature as the embankment dump testifies. The width is an essentially constant 70 meters; the bottom between the banks, discernible in the sandy southern part, is about 20 meters wide. Of course it is hard to tell how broad and deep the water ran when the canal was active. (SWP 1975:543)
SWP (1975:543) believe that "the canal remnants found east of Qantara were part of a large waterway dug across the isthmus, joining the Nile through the east-west depression of Wadi Tumilat." Several scholars have, however, suggested that this "Eastern Canal" followed a different route and did not link up with the Wadi Tumilat (see Redmount 1995: n. 24, 131). In any event, SWP identify their "Eastern Canal" with the Shi-Hor "Waters of Horus" close to the Delta capital of Pi-Ramesse. This identification is only hypothesis but it does seem possible that the otherwise unaccounted canal belongs to the second millennium. Up to this time, the banks of the Eastern and of the other canals have not been systematically excavated, so conclusive evidence for dating is lacking (Redmount 1995:132-33). However, from 1972 to 1982, the Ben Gurion University expedition explored an area between the Suez Canal and Gaza and observed New Kingdom sites along the "Eastern Canal," leading Oren (1987:77) to suggest that "the construction of this ambitious project was effected in the New Kingdom at the latest."

iv. Circumstantial
Rulers of Punt greet Hatshepsut's expedition. Image courtesy of Haines Brown, Images from History

It is well known that Hatshepsut (1473-1458) sent an expedition to Punt (probably the Somali coast). (See Kitchen 1971:192-93; Saleh 1972; and Säve-Söderbergh 1946:13-18.) Hatshepsut's exploit is depicted in reliefs at Deir el-Bahri which, as Saleh (1972:157) explains, raise a "puzzling problem."

Neither in going towards Pwenet nor in returning to Egypt is the necessary transfer of cargoes across the Eastern Desert shown in the reliefs . . . The same ships as are depicted sailing the Red Sea are afterwards shown on the Nile in the quay of Thebes. In consequence of this feature, two contradictory theories are expressed. Some authorities (Naville, Breasted, Capart, Erman and, more recently, Montet) are convinced that a certain shipping waterway linking the eastern arm of the Delta (the Bubastite arm) with the Red Sea must have existed at the time of Hatshepsut, and that the ships must have passed through it to and from the Red Sea. Other scholars (such as Posener, Kees, and Gardiner) categorically reject the existence of such an important canal before the time of Necho . . . They hold that the depiction of ocean-going ships in the quay of Thebes was fanciful and imaginary. They are also tempted to explain the omission of the transportation across the desert between the Nile and the Red Sea as due to the carelessness of the artist or to a misguided effort towards simplicity. The last word concerning this problem is far from being said.
It is true that the Deir el-Bahri texts mention several times that the expedition went "on water and land" (Kitchen 1971:192-93; Säve-Söderbergh 1946:13). However, this does not explain the ocean-going ships at Thebes. Note in this connection: (i) the display of slung skin bottles for water, a provision not required for a journey on the Nile and (ii) the depiction of various saltwater fish beneath the ships. In addition, the "land travel" might easily have occurred at the Punt-end of the expedition. Säve-Söderbergh (1946:13) notes that "except in Deir el Bahari, every time anything definite is told about the road followed [to Punt] the expeditions go through the desert, and the transportation is actually to be seen on a representation of another Punt expedition of the 18th dynasty." With this remark Säve-Söderbergh seeks to demonstrate that the representation of desert traveling was "superfluous," but he has actually proven the opposite point. The Egyptians (rightfully) attached great importance to the achievement of the desert crossing and the boastful Hatshepsut would not likely let it be overlooked in a fit of carelessness or boredom. So, in the end, "the dog that did not bark" is a clue that there was no desert transshipment.

Papyrus Harris (77.8-78.1) states that the expedition of Ramesses III (1194-1163) to Punt went forth in menesh-boats laden with Egyptian goods upon the "great water"/"great sea" of the mew ked "reversed flow"/"inverted water" (Kitchen 1971:189-90; Nibbi 1981:107-9). There is no mention in the text that the expedition transferred its cargo between the Nile and the Red Sea. What happened on the return is unclear and disputed. Kitchen (1993:601-2), following Breasted's translation, has the expedition arriving at "the desert land of Koptos" and Punt's goods being "(re)loaded, overland, on donkeys and men, (then) loaded into ships on the River at the quay of Koptos, being despatched on downstream..." The translation is unclear and the crucial word "then" is added by the translator. Nibbi (1981:108-9) sees the events quite differently:

They arrived safely in the hill-country [Breasted's "desert land"] and in the town of Coptos. They landed safely with the things they had brought. These goods were then loaded on asses, on men and also on other boats to be sent on elsewhere. What we must understand is that is that the goods were redistributed at the port of the town of Coptos... There are absolutely no grounds for supposing that that the hill-country in the text and the town of Coptos, written with the town determinative are not the same place. (emphasis added)
Why were goods redistributed in Koptos? One possible explanation is suggested by Nibbi (1981:109): "It is very likely that it was not possible for such vessels to stop easily or frequently because of the lack of harbours large enough to accomodate them." Thus, once again, it seems that the ships passed through a waterway to and, possibly, from the Red Sea. We will return shortly to the expression mew ked, also found on a stele of Tuthmosis I (1504-1492) (Montet 1981:n.38, 351).

A relief of Seti I (1306-1290) at Karnak shows him crossing a fortified bridge over a reed-lined waterway teeming with crocodiles. The inscription calls the waterway ta denat "the dividing waters" (Gardiner 1920:104 ),about which more below. SWP (1975:548) identify "the dividing waters" with the "Ways of Horus," "Shur of Egypt" and their "Eastern Canal." Oren and Shereshevsi (1989:7) suggest that the relief "probably commemorated the establishment of the military complex along the 'Ways of Horus' and perhaps also the excavation of the sweetwater canal on the edge of the Nile Delta."

6. Canals in the Exodus Account?
Immediately prior to crossing "the Sea" the Israelites were encamped before Pi-hahiroth, according to Exodus 14.2,9 (quoted in Section 1). Citing Albright and other scholars, Hoffmeier (1997:170) has argued for a Semitic etymology for "Pi-ha-hiroth" which may be translated "Mouth of the Canal":

In Mesopotamian texts from as early as the ... late third millennium B.C. (c)herû is attested and means "to dig, dig out, dig up" and is applied to rivers and canals. From the Old Babylonian period onward, (c)hara_aru means "to dig (with a hoe)," "to groove," and (c)harru means "a water course" or "irrigation ditch." H.eru_tu from the Kassite period (1600-1200 B.C.) is a noun meaning "digging work," and is applied to ditches and canals. It is this form of the word that comes closest to the Hebrew writing h.îrot_. The root h.rt is found also in Ugaritic, Hebrew, Punic, and Arabic and carries similar meanings. These meanings suggest that a feature which has been dug, like a trench or canal, is behind the heretofore elusive toponym [Pi.hahiroth].
The element ha would be the definite article in Hebrew, while would be construct form of Hebrew peh, "mouth." ... In English we use the term "mouth" to describe the opening of a river or stream, especially where it pours into a larger body of water The Hebrew is used in the same manner in Isaiah 19:7 to describe the mouth of the Nile.
Hoffmeier (1997:170) understands Pi-hahiroth as the place where the "Eastern Canal" (of SWP) emptied into the Sea of Reeds. A difficulty here is that Numbers 33.8 has the Israelites crossing "the Sea" near Pi-hahiroth and then traveling several days before reaching "the Sea of Reeds" in Numbers 33.10 (see Section 3). Hoffmeier (1997:207-10) has sought to resolve this apparent contradiction.

7. Evidence for Hydraulic Locks in Egyptian Canals

a. Classical Writers²
Diodorus Siculus (1.33.11) says that Ptolemy completed Darius' canal

and in the most suitable spot constructed an ingenious kind of lock. This he opened, whenever he wished to pass through, and quickly closed again . . . The river which flows through this canal is named Ptolemy . . . and has as its mouth the city called Arsinoe. (Oldfather)
The translation of diaphragma as "lock" is supported by LSJ (s.v) citing The Flinders Petrie Papyri 3, dating to the third century BCE. Strabo (17.1.25) similarly credits the Ptolemies with making "the strait a closed passage, so that when they wished they could sail out without hindrance into the outer sea and sail in again" (Jones). Moore (1950:99) explains with respect to the sailing in and out that "Of course that was possible only in case the canal was closed by a lock, that is, by two gates (cataractae) enclosing a basin (piscina) of suitable length . . ."

With respect to hydraulic locks the evidence for Lake Moeris (Lake Karun in the Fayum) is relevant. According to Herodotus (2.101) this lake was dug by king Moeris and he goes on to add details:

This lake has a circuit of three thousand six hundred furlongs, or sixty schoeni, which is as much as the whole seaboard of Egypt. Its length is from north to south; the deepest part has a depth of fifty fathoms. That it was dug out and made by men's hands the lake shows for itself; for almost in the middle of it stand two pyramids, so built that fifty fathoms of each are below and fifty above the water. . . The water of the lake is not natural (for the country is exceeding waterless) but brought by a channel from the Nile; six months it flows into the lake, and six back into the river. (2.149; Godley) (See also D.S. 1.51.5.)
Strabo (17.1.37) maintains that this lake was equipped with locks:
The Lake of Moeris, on account of its size and depth, is sufficient to bear the flood-tides at the risings of the Nile and not overflow into the inhabited and planted parts, and then, in the retirement of the river by the same canal at each of its two mouths and both itself and the canal, to keep back an amount remaining that will be useful for irrigation. While these conditions are the work of nature, yet locks have been placed at both mouths of the canal, by which the engineers regulate both the inflow and the outflow of the water. (Jones)
b. Observations by Egyptologists
Vercoutter (1967:379) speaks of Amenemhat II's (1929-1892) reclamation of the Fayum, the area known by the Greeks as Lake Moeris, by means of a "system of barrages that, by regularizing and controlling the flow of the Nile waters through the Bahr Yusuf, allowed a very great area in the Fayum depression to be opened to agriculture -- the modern estimate is an area of more than 17,000 acres."

Kees (1961:222) rejects the classical writers in many respects, but he concludes on a more positive note:

The ancient Lake Moeris accordingly fulfilled only one of the functions ascribed to it. In this sense therefore, neglecting the statements about the artificial construction of the lake which are only to be applied to the regulating canal at Illahun, the account given by Diodorus seems to be the most accurate:"Through this canal he (Moeris) directed the water of the river at times into the lake at other times he shut it off . . . by opening the inlet and again closing it by an artificial and costly device."
It is not clear to me whether Diodorus Siculus' "artificial and costly device" corresponds to the basin system of agriculture, as described by Lloyd (1983:327):
When the Nile flooded it was held back by the long dyke until sufficient pressure was built up. The dyke was then cut and water admitted into the basins via the basin canal. Depth of flood was controlled by the regulators. When the water had stood on the field the requisite time . . . it was released and the seed was sown.
Strabo credits the Egyptians with utilizing locks in the second millennium. There can be no question that they were long familiar with the use of single barriers or weirs for irrigation. To consider just one more very interesting example, Aldred (1984:70) cites the ceremony of "Opening the Dykes" that is best known from large commemorative scarabs issued by Amenophis III (1391-1353):
The text relates how on the first day of the third month of the inundation, the king decreed that a basin should be made for Queen Tiye in her township near modern Tahta . . . The king celebrated the feast of the Opening of Basins (or Dykes) fifteen days later, when the ground had been thoroughly soaked and silt deposited, by sailing in his state barge through a breach in the dykes into the new basin. . . . Tiye enjoyed the revenues of a tract of new cornland over a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. A much earlier celebration of the same rite is seen in the votive macehead of the predynastic king, Scorpion.
c. Textual References Possibly Suggesting the Action of Hydraulic Locks
It might be objected that the Egyptians had no word for a lock in a canal. Arguments of this kind should be treated with a great deal of caution. In describing the scene of Seti I crossing a bridge (Section 5.d), Montet (1981:170) observes that "No word for 'bridge' is known in Egyptian"! But if locks existed wouldn't we find some notice of them in surviving texts? Perhaps we have such notices.

Let us recall Ramesses III's sea/water of the "reversed flow" (Section 3.d). Kitchen (1971:n.33, 190) believes that this term refers to the Red Sea "whose summer currents (bearing navigators to Punt) also [like the Euphrates] flow opposite to the Nile. Possibly. But in the reign of Ramesses III, and as early as Tuthmosis III (1479-1425), the Euphrates River is the pekher wer (Spalinger cited by Bradbury 1984-1985:6). Further, in his Tombos Stela dating to his second year, Tuthmosis I refers to the "inverted water which goes downstream in going up-stream" as the northern border of his territory, which does not fit the Red Sea very comfortably (see Breasted 1906:II, ¶73). (Thanks to Aayko Eyma for calling this reference to my attention.) Breasted (1906: II, ¶67[3]) believes this "inverted water" is the Euphrates, but he admits that the Tombos Stela predates Tuthmosis' Asiatic campaign taking him to shores of that river.

Goedicke (1996: 172) takes the position that in the Tombos Stela mew ked

is a descriptive formulation and not a technical term, which concerns the Second Cataract. . . . [I]t is to be understood as "that circumvented water," i.e., "avoided water." It means that mw pf qdw denotes a stretch of the Nile unsuitable for sailing, i.e., the Third Cataract . . .
This "descriptive" interpretation does not seem to fit the fact that Ramesses III's expedition went to Punt on the mew ked. Indeed, in an earlier article, Goedicke (1974:13-14) noted that in the Tombos Stela the demonstrative pronoun pef is inserted between mew and ked, hence "that water," and he concluded that "the two passages, despite their superficial similarities, have nothing in common." The mew ked in Papyrus Harris, he believes, is a geographical term. I must confess that I am uncomfortable with Goedicke's analysis. But be this as it may,it is certainly not out of the question that this convoluted expression refers not to the Red Sea or Euphrates (or Third Cataract), but to the action of a hydraulic lock in a canal through the Wadi Tumilat. Indeed, the general vicinity of the Wadi Tumilat is where Nibbi (1975, 1976) locates the mew pef ked.

8. Hydraulic Locks in the Exodus Account?
It is certainly suggestive and possibly significant that in Ps. 114.3,5 (see Section 1) we find the terms nus "flee" and achor sov "turn backward" used in synonymous parallelism to describe the action of the Sea and the Jordan when Israel came out of Egypt. Here there is a resemblance to Egypt's "reversed/inverted" sea/water. (I owe this observation to Lewis Reich.) This tends to connect the enigmatic Egyptian terminology with the biblical account of the Exodus.

Again, Egyptian ta denat "the dividing waters" (see Section 5.d) may refer to the border position of the waterway or conceivably to the action of a lock. Gardiner (1920: n.5, 104) comments that dna means "to divide" and also "to dam off" and he adds that in Eloquent Peasant "the word clearly means a dam or barrier of earth . . ." The word has also been translated as "canal" (see Shea 1977:3)

9. General Considerations
That Egypt in the days of the Pharaohs was able to mass material and intellectual resources and make very significant technical achievements in the realm of water control cannot be doubted.

Indeed, Greek mythology credits newcomers of Egyptian origin with hydraulic achievements in Argos, a Mycenaean site in the northeast Peloponnese. According to Homer (Il. 4.171) Argos was "very thirsty." Yet in historical times the region was well-watered and fertile. A solution to this puzzle is provided in Hesiod's Catalogues of Women and Eoiae (16): "Argos which was waterless Danaos made well-watered" (Evelyn-White). Danaos and his fifty daughters had migrated from Egypt to Argos bringing the required technical expertise with them.³

As I understand the process, the closing of a canal by a lock to enable a ship to overcome a difference in elevation requires two dams, each equipped with some form of sluice-gate, enclosing a basin of sufficient length. In order to sluice-out the water to the lower level we may think of vertical gates raised and lowered by means of a windlass, as is attested on canals of the early Renaissance or, perhaps, of horizontal gates turning on a spindle (see Moore 1950). The evidence indicates that Egypt was able to obtain the necessary wood and had the skilled workmen to construct a lock in the third century BCE. Obviously I would defer to an engineer, but I see no economic or technical difference that would have precluded the use of locks in much earlier times. I find support in the conclusion of Smith (1978:83), an engineer, in his discussion of Roman canals:

Given the need a pound-lock is by no means difficult to build, either in terms of manpower or materials, and as innovations go the concept is not exactly obscure. And in any case in the Graeco-Roman world there already existed a device which was conceptually, constructionally and operationally so similar that no more than the merest adaptation was required.
The device he refers to is the dry-dock. Cheryl Ward, Archaeological Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Egypt, informs me that
Using a coffer dam to close off an area from water either after hauling or floating a ship into it or building a ship in it (with or without stone foundations) and then cutting the dam is the simplest (and I believe most likely) way to maneuver immense weights (monoliths up to 740 tons and more) on and off watercraft.
No representative, literary or archaeological evidence exists to support this practice from the pharaonic period, however. All we have is the Hatshepsut obelisk reliefs, where two 330-ton obelisks are loaded end-to-end on a ship that had to be 300 feet long and about 100 feet wide. (personal correspondence dated 2/13/1998)
No great stretch of the imagination is required to conclude that this loading took place in dry-dock. A functioning coffer dam would, in turn, easily point to the technology of the lock, if any such inspiration were required. All this, I believe, makes the direct and indirect evidence cited above pointing to the use of locks in the second millennium all the more credible.

I see two possible locations for the Sea of Reeds, which I equate with a water of mew ked. First, a lake/fresh water canal at the Nile-end of the the Wadi Tumilat. Second, a lake/fresh water canal at the Lake Timsah-end of the Wadi Tumilat (or between Lake Timsah and the Bitter Lakes). The latter location for the water of mew ked is favored by Nibbi (1975:35) who suggests "the possibility that mw-qd may refer to any section of Nile water which reverses its flow owing to a bend in the river." Nibbi (1975:35) supports her locational hypothesis by citing Helck's translation of a document of Ramesses IX (1131-1112) in which the Shasu, Bedouin peoples of the North Sinai, have have been thrown to the ground "in the country of mw-qd who live in qh.qh. on the shores of the ym." This "yam" is probably the Red Sea. The placing of the Reed Sea in relatively close proximity to the Red Sea would, of course, go far in explaining the Bible's apparent inclusion of the former in the latter (see Section 3). To complete the picture of the canal network in the second millennium, the remains of a canal between Lake Timsah and Lake Ballah were discovered by by the French engineer Linant de Bellefonds. Shea (1977:31-2) suggests that these remains may well have belonged to the "Eastern Canal" of SWP (see Section 5.d ), which he believes served only defensive purposes. (As if to underline the uncertainties here, Oren [1987:73] states that this canal was "an important artery for maritime commerce.") However, Shea (1977:38) does not rule out the possibility that, after joining at Lake Timsah with the canal from the Nile through the Wadi Tumilat, the canal continued south to the Gulf of Suez for navigational purposes.

The Wadi Tumilat and the eastern lakes area are natural depressions. The Wadi provided more than adequate water for navigation during the time of inundation. Locks placed appropriately at both ends of the Wadi Tumilat would have permitted the cargo vessels of the time to make a continuous journey by water to and from the Red Sea. I propose that ancient texts refer to channels supplied with locks as "waters of reversed flow" or "dividing waters." Thus, the evidence presented does not invalidate the possibility that after crossing the Reed Sea the fleeing Israelites opened the lock's Nile-end sluice-gate and flooded the basin. Perhaps, as Rick Robinson has suggested to me, the sudden flooding of a relatively narrow channel would sweep away only a handful of Pharaoh's troops. Or perhaps, the opening of the lock when Moses held out his arm would only have served to delay the pursuers.

Why, assuming that my hypothesis reflects actual events, did the Israelites credit God for a salvation won by their own devices? In response to this problem we may note a tendency in the Bible to credit God for good fortune and to attribute disasters to the unfaithfulness of the Israelites. We may, perhaps. suppose that the support offered to a people by mortal heroes is not as reliable and potent as a belief in the favor of God.


1. For an attempt, in the main successful I believe, to extract historical economic data from myths, see Silver 1991. I would especially call the attention of the reader to the articles in this volume by Wolfgang Heimpel ("Some Observations on Trade and Myth in Early Babylonia"), Niels Peter Lemche ("Our Most Gracious Sovereign:On the Relationship Between Royal Mythology and Economic Oppression in the Ancient Near East"), Noel Robertson ("Myth, Ritual, and Livelihood in Early Greece"), Morris Silver ("The Commodity Composition of Trade in the Argonaut Myth" and "The Mythical Conflict Between Osiris and Seth and Egypt's Trade with Byblos During the Old Kingdom"), and Herman L.J. Vanstiphout ("The Exchange of Goods as a Literary Topic in Mesopotamian Myth and Legend").

2. We sometimes see the reports of classical historians discredited by the observation that they lived hundreds of years after the events they describe. Would not this apply equally to a contemporary historian's report,for example, on the career of George Washington? The point is that inscriptions, archives and libraries were available to ancient scholars. See, for example, Culham (1989), Harris (1989), and Pedersén (1998).

3. For a discussion of the Danaos myth, see Silver (1992:222-24). It is of course no "myth" that the Mycenaeans should be credited with several rather impressive hydrologic-engineering feats including the dam at Tiryns and the draining of Lake Kopais.


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Last Revised April 6, 1998