The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus

The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus

The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus

The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus


For more than four decades, biblical experts have tried to place the story of Exodus into historical context--without success. What could explain the Nile turning to blood, insects swarming the land, and the sky falling to darkness? Integrating biblical accounts with substantive archaeological evidence, The Parting of the Sea looks at how natural phenomena shaped the stories of Exodus, the Sojourn in the Wilderness, and the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Barbara Sivertsen demonstrates that the Exodus was in fact two separate exoduses both triggered by volcanic eruptions--and provides scientific explanations for the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Over time, Israelite oral tradition combined these events into the Exodus narrative known today.

Skillfully unifying textual and archaeological records with details of ancient geological events, Sivertsen shows how the first exodus followed a 1628 B. C. E Minoan eruption that produced all but one of the first nine plagues. The second exodus followed an eruption of a volcano off the Aegean island of Yali almost two centuries later, creating the tenth plague of darkness and a series of tsunamis that "parted the sea" and drowned the pursuing Egyptian army. Sivertsen's brilliant account explains inconsistencies in the biblical story, fits chronologically with the conquest of Jericho, and confirms that the Israelites were in Canaan before the end of the sixteenth century B. C. E.

In examining oral traditions and how these practices absorb and process geological details through storytelling, The Parting of the Sea reveals how powerful historical narratives are transformed into myth.


The story of the Exodus is one of the best known narratives of Western Civilization. As recounted in the Bible, the Israelites are slaves in ancient Egypt. Moses, an Israelite raised in the Egyptian court as the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter, kills an Egyptian who is mistreating an Israelite slave and is forced to flee the country. He arrives in the land of Midian, meets the daughters of the Midianite priest Jethro, marries one of them, and produces two sons. One day, while tending sheep for his father-inlaw on the west side (or the back side, or the far side, depending on how the Hebrew is translated) of the wilderness or the desert, Moses sees a burning bush. The odd thing is that the flames do not consume the bush, and out of it an angel of God speaks. This is the prelude to a series of conversations between Moses and God. God, or Yahweh, wants Moses to return to Egypt and bring Yahweh's people back to the land promised to their forefather Abraham—the land of Canaan.

Moses is more than a little reluctant to take up the task, but eventually he returns to Egypt. Moses and his brother Aaron go to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh let the Israelites go on a three days' journey during which they are to make sacrifices to their God. The two brothers perform a series of supernatural tricks before Pharaoh to try to convince him to do what they ask. When these tricks prove ineffective, God inflicts a series of plagues on the Egyptians: the water of the Nile is turned to blood, there are plagues of frogs, gnats, and flies, cattle become diseased, people develop boils, there are plagues of hail, locusts, and darkness. Finally, because Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites go, God declares that He will kill the firstborn of Egypt. God tells Moses how to arrange for the Israelites to . . .

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