Feb. 12, 2004 -- Was the mythical parting of the Red Sea triggered by Moses' outstretched hand or an unusual chain of perfectly natural causes? Or both?
And does it matter?
Russian researchers recently took a stab at explaining one of the Bible's most famous miracles. Their version of events describes how a strong, persistent wind and an underlying reef may have made the feat possible.
The research follows a long line of efforts by science scholars to prove religious miracles from claims of sighting the ruins of Noah's Ark to attributing the biblical "trumpet blast" from Mt. Sinai as volcanic activity. Some argue such explanations diminish the concept of miracles while others say they reinforce their power.
A Good Wind and Good Timing
In the latest attempt to lend scientific credence to a supernatural event, Naum Volzinger, a senior researcher at St. Petersburg's Institute of Oceanography, and Alexei Androsov, a colleague based in Hamburg, Germany, analyzed conditions that could have made the parting of the Red Sea possible.
As the biblical story goes: "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."
Volzinger and Androsov calculated that a wind blowing at the speed of 67 miles per hour sustained overnight could have exposed a reef that existed close below the ocean surface. The Israelites could have then fled over the passage before the wind died down and waters rose again, blocking the way for pursuing Egyptian soldiers in their wheeled chariots.
Volzinger explains that some 3,500 years ago, the reef would have been closer to the water's surface so it would have been exposed for just the right amount of time.
"It would take the Jews … four hours to cross the 7-kilometer reef that runs from one coast to another," Volzinger told The Moscow Times. "Then, in half an hour, the waters would come back."
A miracle? Perhaps. Great timing? Certainly, argues Colin Humphreys, a physicist at Cambridge University in England and author of the book, The Miracles of Exodus.
"I still say they're miracles," Humphreys said. "But I think the miracle is in the timing."
Humphreys has used similar calculations to explain the parting of the Red Sea, although he places the event in a slightly different location along the shore. Other scholars have argued that the name Red Sea has been mistranslated over the centuries from Hebrew and the name yam suph, or "Sea of Reeds" actually refers to a marshy, inland lake, which would have been easier to cross than a sea.
Humphreys traveled to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba of the Red Sea to settle the matter and found that reeds still grow there today due to the freshwater flow of mountain springs. The so-called "Sea of Reeds," he concluded, could therefore refer to the Red Sea.
He then set out to explain another well-known miracle — the burning bush — that the Bible reports "did not burn up" as Moses heard God talking to him through it. While hiking in Israel, Humphreys happened to step on a volcanic vent.
"It nearly burned my shoe," he said.
One of the most common bushes in the region is the acacia bush, says Humphreys, a bramble that is known for making good charcoal. If a vent happened to spew hot gasses under an acacia bush, he argues, it could have alighted and appeared to have burned without end.
"The bush may have started burning just as Moses walked near," he said. "It's all very possible, but again, the miracle is in the timing."
Efforts to explain the miraculous certainly aren't limited to biblical references.
In 1995 people in India began reporting accounts of marble statues of the Hindu god, Ganesh, drinking milk. The stock market and the federal government closed down in India so that people could feed the statues. Within days Hindu statues around the world were consuming milk by the liter.
Scientists later said the "miracle" could be explained by the simple physics of surface tension, which made it appear as if the milk were disappearing. Physics aside, some argue miracles like these are in the eye of the beholder.
"Miracles are a great source of comfort," says Nicholas Humphrey, a psychologist at the New School in New York City and author of Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles and the Search for Supernatural Consolation. "Many people are eager to have miracles revealed to them. That means they may be more likely to be taken in by events that have natural explanations."
Statistics, alone, guarantee that seemingly miraculous events happen on a regular basis, argues John Allen Paulos, a mathematician and author at Temple University in Philadelphia.
"If a miracle is simply a very unlikely event, then miracles occur every day," Paulos wrote in one of his monthly ABCNEWS.com columns. "Just ask any lottery winner or bridge player."
The key may lie in how a miracle is defined. Robert John Russell, founder of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif., argues miracles are less about an event, itself, than the powerful experience of the person who witnesses it.
"Some people take miracles literally — as miracles — and that's fine," says Robert John Russell, founder of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif. "But I think a lot of people have come to interpret miracles as natural events with extraordinary significance."
Witnessing a solar eclipse or the birth of a child, he suggests, can be miraculous occasions, even though both can be explained by science. However a miracle is defined, polls show an overwhelming number of Americans believe in them. A recent Fox News poll found that 82 percent of those surveyed believe in miracles.
Some miracles, of course, can't be explained by science, such as the resurrection of Christ or how Hindu's Vishnu, in the form of a dwarf, took three steps that encompassed the entire Earth.
These miracles, says Humphrey, are best simply left alone.
"These are important stories," he said. "In some ways it cheapens them if you feel compelled to prove them."