Moviemaker Steven Spielberg believes the parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. Demille’s remake of The Ten Commandments is the greatest special-effects sequence on film – and it was all done without computers. Seeing the movie even more than half a century later makes you appreciate God’s original production, which was done without Cecil B. DeMille. And all God had to work with was the wind and the waves. According to the biblical account, the Hebrew people, having fled bondage in Egypt in search of a promised land, found themselves trapped at the edge of the Red Sea with the pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit. They had not been too crazy about leaving the fleshpots of Egypt in the first place and complained bitterly to Moses, who was the one who had gotten them into this mess. But then Moses told them, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.” What happened next required all the special-effects wizardry Cecil B. DeMille could muster when he came out with the movie version in 1956. A strong wind blew up, and the waters parted, allowing the Hebrew people to cross over into Sinai. The pharaoh’s chariots got bogged down in the mud when they tried to pursue, and the waters came crashing down on top of them.
The parting of the Red Sea is one of those stories that tends to divide Bible literalists from those who prefer to think of such Old Testament stories as mostly legendary. After all, the stories weren’t even written down until centuries after the fact and doubtless were exaggerated in the retelling. However, researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado recently performed a computer simulation that demonstrated how an atmospheric phenomenon called “wind setdown” could have created a temporary land bridge across waters at a particular site on the eastern Nile delta. Of course, a computer simulation is not proof of an actual event. However, the researchers note that exactly this sort of wind setdown occurred on the eastern Nile delta in 1882, as reported by a British Army general doing survey work there along Lake Manzala. He was forced to halt work due to gale-force winds, which drove the shallow waters of the lake back to the horizon, exposing the mud flats beneath. Major General Alexander B. Tulloch later wrote, “It suddenly flashed across my mind that I was witnessing a similar event to what had taken place between three and four thousand years ago, at the time of the passage of the so-called Red Sea by the Israelites.”
Real or legendary, the special-effects dimension of the story tends to obscure its spiritual significance, which is barely mentioned in passing. “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still,” Moses had said as the pharaoh’s chariots bore down on them. This could hardly have been reassuring at the time. In effect, he seemed to be saying, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” And yet Moses’ words reflect one of the most profound spiritual precepts in the Bible. Turn to the Book of Psalms, and you will find it expressed this way: “Cease striving, and know that I am God.” A similar idea is contained in this verse from the Book of Proverbs: “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” This is true even when your path seems to bring you to the edge of the Red Sea, with the pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit.
Like many spiritual precepts (e.g., “love your enemies”), this one is counterintuitive. To be told to be still when the pharaoh’s chariots are bearing down on you is to go against your basic instinct for self-preservation. Most of us, thankfully, will never find ourselves in so desperate a situation. And yet how many of us, in seeking our own version of the promised land, get caught up in the delusion that success depends on our own efforts? How can we get anywhere if we cease striving?
This was the dilemma facing the rich young man who asked Jesus what good deed he must do to inherit eternal life. Playing along, Jesus advised him to keep the commandments. "All these I have observed,” the young man replied, “what do I still lack?" Since he seemed to think he was still lacking in something, Jesus zeroed in on the one thing the young man was not prepared to do. "If you would be perfect,” Jesus told him, “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Jesus had correctly discerned that the young man was more interested in being perfect than in finding eternal life. However, his disciples failed to grasp the significance of this exchange. If someone as worthy as this young man did not measure up, who then could be saved? "With men this is impossible,” Jesus replied, “but with God all things are possible."
The rich young man no doubt imagined himself to be on some sort of spiritual quest when he asked Jesus what good deed he must do to have eternal life. But make no mistake: his bid for perfection was really an act of self-preservation, no different in essence from the fearful reaction of the Hebrew slaves who believed themselves cornered by the pharaoh’s chariots. As long as we are embarked on a quest for salvation, enlightenment or some other form of self-improvement, the self has its raison d’etre and can remain in charge. However, as spiritual adepts have long insisted, true salvation is achieved only by God’s grace, and that can happen only after the abandonment of all striving.
Carl Drews and Weiqing Han, “Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta,” PLoS ONE (August 30, 2010)