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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Jewish Book World
Reaching the end of this book, all I could think was, 'this is blowing my mind.' Not to be overwrought, but Barbara Sivertsen's The Parting of the Sea rewrites the major story of the Jewish people, that of the Exodus from Egypt. Assembling and interpreting a dizzying amount of scientific material, Sivertsen documents how earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and a tsunami played key roles in establishing Jewish people in the land of Canaan.
Journal of Archaeological Science - Hannah Friedman
[I]t is a well researched and at times scientific review of a biblical story. . . . This book, while it does not answer all the questions, does raise theories that can be tested in the future.
From the Publisher
"Providing what may be the most coherent correlation yet of ancient Egyptian history, the archeology of both Egypt and Palestine, and the biblical traditions of pre-literate Israel, Sivertsen also thoroughly documents and explains each interdisciplinary facet (including volcanism and tectonics as well as oral transmission in non-literate societies). This outstanding accomplishment should be a source of research direction for years to come."Publishers Weekly Review Annex, Web Pick of the Week

"Reaching the end of this book, all I could think was, 'this is blowing my mind.' Not to be overwrought, but Barbara Sivertsen's The Parting of the Sea rewrites the major story of the Jewish people, that of the Exodus from Egypt. Assembling and interpreting a dizzying amount of scientific material, Sivertsen documents how earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and a tsunami played key roles in establishing Jewish people in the land of Canaan."Jewish Book World

"[I]t is a well researched and at times scientific review of a biblical story. . . . This book, while it does not answer all the questions, does raise theories that can be tested in the future."—Hannah Friedman, Journal of Archaeological Science

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Sivertsen, long-time editor of the Journal of Geology, has combed the scientific literature-including Near Eastern and Egyptian archeology, Biblical studies, anthropology, biochemistry and medicine-to answer the question, is the Bible's Exodus story based in historical events? While her affirmative conclusion may not be surprising, the evidence that takes her there is. Her most revolutionary discovery is that the original, oral history of the Exodus story conflates two historical events, separated by several hundred years-clarifying what had been a major chronological obstacle to previous efforts trying to correlate it with the volcanic eruption of the Santorini-Thera in 1625 B.C. Siversten locates a different eruption, the 1450 B.C. submarine explosion of the island of Yali, which would have caused the tsunami that inundated Egyptians in the "Sea of Reeds." Providing what may be the most coherent correlation yet of ancient Egyptian history, the archeology of both Egypt and Palestine, and the biblical traditions of pre-literate Israel, Sivertsen also thoroughly documents and explains each interdisciplinary facet (including volcanism and tectonics as well as oral transmission in non-literate societies). This outstanding accomplishment should be a source of research direction for years to come.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal

Arguing back from the biblical record and using her extensive geological and archaeological knowledge, Sivertsen (managing editor, Journal of Geology; Turtles, Wolves and Bears: A Mohawk Family History) contends that natural phenomena can explain the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, and Canaanite conquest. She ties these events to two volcanic eruptions—a Minoan eruption (1628 B.C.E.), which accounts for the plagues and an initial Israelite departure, and a second eruption on the Aegean island of Yali (1450 B.C.E.), which explains the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea. She suggests that Israel spent 78 years in the wilderness by which time Moses had died but bubonic plague had also decimated the Canaanite population so that the Israelites could successfully infiltrate the land. Sivertsen concludes that over time, several exoduses, leaders, and volcanic events have been merged by biblical authors into a single exodus and leader. VERDICT Intriguing ideas recommend this well-written, well-researched work to those who enjoy biblical studies through the lens of science, although some may wonder if subsequent scholarship will support the author's somewhat expansive claims.—Sandra Collins, Byzantine Catholic Seminary Lib., Pittsburgh

—Sandra Collins
Journal of Archaeological Science
[I]t is a well researched and at times scientific review of a biblical story. . . . This book, while it does not answer all the questions, does raise theories that can be tested in the future.
— Hannah Friedman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691150215
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/25/2011
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 819,933
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara J. Sivertsen has been managing editor of the "Journal of Geology" for over twenty-five years. She is the author of "Turtles, Wolves, and Bears: A Mohawk Family History" and "The Three Pillars: How Family Politics Shaped the Early Church and the Gospel of Mark".

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Read an Excerpt

The Parting of the Sea

How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus


Copyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13770-4

Chapter One

Dating the Exodus

Actor Charlton Heston began his film career in 1950 on the steps of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History playing Marc Antony in an adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the impressive pillars and white marble steps of the museum providing a highly effective stand-in for the Roman Senate. Later he would go on to his most famous role, that of Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's epic film, The Ten Commandments. In this movie the biblical Exodus takes place during the reign of the pharaoh Ramesses II, of Egypt's Nineteenth Dynasty. In the year 2000, Field Museum Egyptologist Frank Yurco included this film in his class, "Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence."


Frank Yurco (who died in 2003) was among a minority of Egyptologists who hold to the view that the Exodus actually occurred. Like many biblical scholars for the past several centuries, he cited what he believed was the most reliable part of the scriptural narrative: the names of the store-cities Pithom and Rameses in Exodus 1:11. This, Yurco asserted, pointed to the pharaoh Ramesses II, who reigned from 1279 to 1209 B.C.E.2 Ramesses II's capital was at Pi-Ramesses, a close approximation of the biblical name. Pi-Ramesses was located in Egypt's eastern Delta region, thought to be the biblical "land of Goshen." Earlier pharaohs, those of the Eighteenth Dynasty, had their capital farther south, at Thebes or Amarna. Later pharaohs moved the capital to the city of Tanis. After this move the name Pi-Ramesses disappeared from common usage, as shown in the Bible where the name Tanis appears several times.

Yurco cited texts from the reign of Ramesses II to show that "'Apiru" (a term many scholars think relates to the biblical Hebrews) did indeed labor on the monuments of Pi-Ramesses. Most of the buildings of this and other Egyptian cities, he noted, were made of mud bricks such as those mentioned in Exodus 5. Unlike the earlier kings, Ramesses II did indeed build cities in the Nile Delta for storing his military supplies. The Pharaoh was also resident in his capital of Pi-Ramesses, and thus could have been physically accessible to Moses and Aaron, as the Bible account describes. Even the Red Sea crossing makes sense in terms of the city of Pi-Ramesses if the term Red Sea refers in fact to the Reed Sea (see chapters 4 and 10), since several marshy freshwater lakes filled with reeds were immediately to the east and northeast of that city. And, finally, Egyptian names in the Exodus account-Moses, Phineas, Hophni, Shiprah, and Puah-are "characteristic of the Ramesside era, less so in Dynasty XVIII and least of all in Dynasty XXVI."

Other eminent scholars at a 1992 Brown University conference on the Egyptian evidence for the Exodus expressed their doubts about Yurco's position. Although archaeologist William Dever did agree that Egyptian historical evidence pointed to a thirteenth century B.C.E. date for the Exodus, he wondered how the newly escaped slaves could so quickly establish themselves in Canaan-for they appear as a distinct people, "Israel," on the famous Victory Stele of Merneptah of about 1207 B.C.E. Furthermore, the biblical account mentions the Israelites passing through the kingdoms of Ammon, Moab, and Edom. Ammon, Dever noted, was sparsely occupied in the thirteenth century B.C.E. while Edom and Moab were not yet established kingdoms. Dever concluded that oral tradition may have preserved the memory of Canaanite groups in Egypt during the Hyksos period (seventeenth and sixteenth centuries B.C.E.) and their expulsion by the first pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Ahmose, but that the true settling of Canaan by the early Israelites had nothing to do with the biblical Exodus or with the supposed wanderings in the wilderness and the subsequent conquest under Joshua, none of which fit any of the archaeological evidence.

Noted Canadian Egyptologist Donald Redford was even more pessimistic. Thirty years before he had pointed out that the Biblical names Pithom (pr-'Itm in Egyptian) and Rameses or Raamses were known only in the Saite period, that is, during the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. Other concrete aspects of the Sojourn in Egypt and Exodus stories were likewise recent. As for an Exodus in the time of the Nineteenth Dynasty, he noted the total lack of any Egyptian evidence for a large population of Asiatics (that is, people from southwest Asia) in Egypt living in large measure unto itself during the entire New Kingdom (Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties). Redford thought that the stories of the Sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus had their origin in the Canaanite (not Israelite) folkloric memory of the occupation of Egypt by the Hyksos, a people originally from southwest Asia.

Another apparent nail in the coffin of a thirteenth century B.C.E. Exodus was provided by James Weinstein, who reviewed the archeological evidence from early twelfth century B.C.E. Israelite settlements and found hardly any evidence of Egyptian contact. Such contact would be expected from a people fresh out of Egypt. The only question that really mattered, Weinstein wrote, "is whether any (nonbiblical) textual or archaeological materials indicate a major outflow of Asiatics from Egypt to Canaan at any point in the XIXth or even early XXth Dynasty. And so far the answer to that question is no." Abraham Malamat of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem did discover an account of Asiatics leaving Egypt at the beginning of the Twentieth Dynasty. This group, in the first or second decade of the twelfth century B.C.E., was driven out of Egypt by the pharaoh Sethnakht after having been bribed with silver and gold to assist a rival political faction. More than any of the other scholars at the conference, Malamat viewed the Exodus as the compression of a chain of historical or "durative" events telescoped into one "punctual" event. Both Dever and Weinstein pointed out the lack of archeological evidence for a thirteenth or twelfth century B.C.E. conquest of Canaan by Joshua. William A. Ward summed up the consensus of the conference, and the mainstream of scholarly opinion, by noting that the Exodus could not be separated from the conquest under Joshua, and that "if there was no conquest, there is no need of an Exodus." The archeological evidence is indeed unequivocal. Although there is much archeological evidence for the destruction of a number of Canaanite cities at the end of the Middle Bronze Age (starting about 1550 B.C.E.), there is little or none for their destruction when the conquest of Joshua would have occurred, if the Exodus had taken place during the Nineteenth Dynasty.


More than twenty-five years ago a British scholar, John Bimson, attempted to solve this problem. First, he used the statement in 1 Kings 6:1 that the beginning of Solomon's temple (about 965-967 B.C.E. by modern calculation) took place 480 years after the flight from Egypt as a rough approximation of the actual Exodus date. Then he tried to move the dates for the end of the Middle Bronze Age forward more than one hundred years. New archeological finds, however, as well as radiocarbon dates for the destruction layer of the walled city of Jericho, have shown this approach to be "fatally flawed."

Earlier writers took a different approach to estimate the date of the Exodus, summing up the chronological information in the book of Judges and working backward from the reigns of kings David and Solomon. Using this method, in 1925 J. W. Jack estimated 609 years between the Exodus and the building of the first Israelite temple. The most recent approach to determine the date of the Exodus involved computers. Using computer software to correlate the priestly cycles (taken from the Talmud), the lunar and solar cycles, and the jubilee years, E. W. Faulstich arrived at a date of July 31, 588 B.C.E. for the destruction of the Solomonic temple. Using the same method, he arrived at a date of 1421 B.C.E. for the conquest of Jericho, and by adding forty years to this figure, a date of 1461 B.C.E. for the Exodus.

A much earlier writer, a first century c.e. Jew named Flavius Josephus, offered two dates for the Exodus. To counter the anti-Semitic claims of a writer named Apion, Josephus wrote a work entitled Against Apion, in which he quoted the third century B.C.E. Egyptian historian Manetho about the Hyksos, an Asiatic people who invaded and conquered Egypt in the first half of the second millennium B.C.E. Josephus equated the Hyksos to the Israelites to prove his own people's antiquity and stated that the Exodus had occurred 612 years before King Solomon built the temple. In another work, Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus again used the 612-year figure along with a 466-year figure for the length of the the temple's existence. But elsewhere in Antiquities Josephus stated that the temple was started on the second month, 592 years after the Exodus, and also that the temple was destroyed 470 years, six months, and ten days after it was built. Combining the 592 years with the 470 years he went on to write that the temple was destroyed 1,062 years, six months, and ten days after the Exodus (and further that the Flood occurred 1957 years, six months, and ten days before the temple's destruction, and 3,513 years, six months, and ten days from Adam to the destruction). These sets of numbers apparently were from an ancient year-counting source, now lost. This ancient source had at some point acquired the beginning of February as the starting point for each new year. Combining Josephus' year count of 1,062 years, six months, and ten days with the accepted date for the destruction of the first temple, the seventh or tenth of Ab, 586 B.C.E., produces an Exodus date of 1648 B.C.E., in early February. However, if Josephus had actually made a twenty-year error in the wrong direction when he wrote 612 instead of 592 years, then the resulting figure-572 years between the Exodus and the break in the year count-would produce an Exodus date of 1628 B.C.E. As we shall see in chapter 3, this date is arguably the year of the Minoan eruption of Santorini/Thera. Josephus's time of year agrees with Egyptian harvest times as well (see chapter 4). The break designated as the start of the building of the temple is nearly a century too early for this event but would accord nicely with the destruction of the principal Israelite cult center at Shiloh, known to have occurred in the mid-eleventh century B.C.E.


The modern-day oral historian would approach the Exodus story far differently than the literary scholar. First, the oral historian would give little weight to the fact that many people in the story don't have proper names, including Pharaoh-proper names often fall by the wayside in oral transmission. In the same vein, the names Pithom and Rameses, so important to literary scholars, would be treated with caution as possible later additions-anachronisms, a common feature of oral traditions. Second, the oral historian would give little weight to the number of years mentioned in 1 Kings 6:1, since numbers are likewise subject to great distortion. Moreover, this particular number is a multiple of forty and twelve, two ritual numbers for the early Israelites. An oral historian might pay a little more attention to the diverse numbers of years given for the rule of the judges, but some of them are recognizably ritual numbers as well. There is also the possibility of overlap for various judges in different parts or tribes of Israel, or missing periods, or other uncountable stretches of time.

Oral historians have often tried to use natural events to date traditional stories. But they have discovered that such events do not always stay attached to their original time and place. A way to detect this problem is to look at the story as a whole. If an oral tradition does contain an extraordinary natural event (or a series of them), how intrinsic is the event to the story? Could the extraordinary event be moved or removed without changing the basic structure of the story? To put it another way, is it likely, in the context of the story, that the extraordinary event was added or moved?

The story of the Exodus contains a whole series of extraordinary natural or supernatural events. There is the burning bush, the ten plagues, and the parting of the waters. Certainly the plagues and some sort of miraculous event involving the drowning of the Egyptians are intrinsic to the story-without them there is no story, nor any reason to have such a story in the first place. It is worth noting that, in the ancient world, both the normal and abnormal occurrences of nature were held to be the works of the gods and goddesses. If something unusual had indeed happened, the people of the time, both Egyptian and Israelite, would have credited it to the working of divine authority.


With this in mind, in 1957 one ecologically minded scholar, Greta Hort, saw the plagues as disturbances in the ecology of the Nile, triggered by exceptionally strong July and August Nile flooding that brought down blood-red flagellates from the mountain lakes of Ethiopia, along with larger than normal quantities of the reddish sediments from the Abyssinian Plateau. These flagellates, Euglena sanguinea, took oxygen from the river water, which killed the fish and brought on flies. This drove the frogs from the river not long before the high flood levels produced a lot of mosquitoes. Unfortunately, the frogs had contracted anthrax and spread it to animals and people, producing more of the plagues. Hail, coming in early February just before the barley harvest in the Egyptian Delta, destroyed the flax and barley, locusts blew in from Arabia, and a dust storm produced the exceptional darkness of the ninth plague. Hort didn't explain the pillar of cloud and fire, however. In fact, large amounts of sediment from Ethiopia show up during low Nile floods, not high ones. More importantly, the vicissitudes of the Nile floods and their effects would have occurred in other years and would thus have been regarded as ordinary events, whereas the Exodus portrays the water turning to blood as an extraordinary, one-time-only event. Moreover, how did such reasonably ordinary events get so closely connected in the minds of people (they supposedly happened over the course of most of a year) or come to be considered so extraordinary that they were remembered for centuries?

In a similar vein, archaeologists J. B. E. Garstang and his son John had earlier (in 1940) come up with the idea that the plagues were manifestations of a volcanic eruption that took place in the Rift Valley of central Africa. The Garstangs theorized that the central African lakes that are the sources of the White Nile were poisoned by Rift volcanoes, and the Nile brought the toxins north to Egypt, killing the fish and causing the earlier plagues. Another volcano, Mount Horeb, erupted in the land of Midian east of the Red Sea, and prevailing winds blew dust, steam, and ash over to Egypt, causing the hail and darkness plagues. An earthquake related to all this volcanic activity caused the sea to part and later to return and drown the Egyptians.

Modern geological knowledge dispenses with this scenario, however. The volcanoes in central Africa are still active today, their effusive eruptions sending lava south into Lake Kivu, not northward to Lake Edward, which connects to Lake Albert, the source of the White Nile. The greatest danger humans and animals face from these basaltic shield volcanoes is through direct contact with the molten lava, or through asphyxiation from inhaling local pockets of carbon dioxide gas that form close to the ground. Only in the immediate vicinity of where the lava flows into Lake Kivu are fish parboiled, a bonanza to local fishermen. Across the Red Sea, the effects of the volcanoes of Midian would only be felt locally, not as far away as Egypt.


Excerpted from The Parting of the Sea by BARBARA J. SIVERTSEN Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Figures and Tables ix
Acknowledgments xi
Introduction: The Exodus, Oral Tradition, and Natural History xiii
Chapter One: Dating the Exodus 1
Chapter Two: The Coming of the Hyksos 10
Chapter Three: The Minoan Eruption 23
Chapter Four: The Plagues, the Exodus, and Historical Reality 35
Chapter Five: Moses and the Mountain of God 46
Chapter Six: The Sojourn in the Wilderness 68
Chapter Seven: Meanwhile, Back in Civilization 83
Chapter Eight: The Destruction of Jericho 93
Chapter Nine: The Conquest and Settlement of Canaan 102
Chapter Ten: Back to Egypt 120
Chapter Eleven: The Formation of the Exodus Tradition 140
Appendix: Oral Transmission, Memory and Recall, and Oral History 152
Abbreviations 157
Notes 159
Glossary of Geological and Technical Terms 199
Bibliography 205
Index 229

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  • Posted March 3, 2010

    The Santorini Eruption (~1625 BCE) and the Exodus from Egypt

    I enjoyed reading Sivertsen's interpretation of the Biblical account of the "Exodus" from Egypt. In fact her theories fascinated me, because I have long believed that the "PLAGUES" inflicted on the Egyptians were somehow related to the massive eruption that destroyed Satorini.

    Sivertsen's reconstruction of the EXODUS from Egypt will not be universally accepted. In fact, it is likely to be rejected by religious Fundamentalists. The originality of her theories appealed to me, but I do not claim to be knowledgeable in radioactive dating, nor in biblical archaeology, and certainly not in the field of Biblical authorship.

    The problem of accurately dating events that took place 3.5 millenia ago, and placing them, on a chart, with all other "known" HISTORICAL events may prove to be a formidable task. Sivertsen's suggested solution may
    not be acceptable to scientists of all the relevant disciplines.

    Sivertsen provides a succint summary of her findings in Chapter 10. And in Chapter 11, she discusses some of the current scientific knowledge that she relied upon to arrive at her conclusions.

    At the present time the dating of the Santorini eruption cannot be made to coincide, readily, with the archaeological dates. If knowledgeable scientists cannot agree, a layman like myself is left to takes Sivertsen's findings on faith alone.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2009

    Excellent New Theory about Exodus

    In the past six years I have researched questions related to the Exodus in a lot of depth. I have read and personally rejected a long list of theories. I have a shelf and a half of books related to this topic.

    In March 2009, a new book came out with another new proposal for resolving this very question.

    The book is:
    Sivertsen, Barbara J. The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Exodus Story. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (2009)

    One of the editorial reviews says that Barbara Sivertsen's book The Parting of the Sea, "provid[es] what may be the most coherent correlation yet of ancient Egyptian history, the archeology of both Egypt and Palestine, and the biblical traditions of pre-literate Israel. ... This outstanding accomplishment should be a source of research direction for years to come."

    I agree strongly with this assessment.

    In an interview Barbara Sivertsen stated, "I'm convinced my hypothesis explains the events much better than others."

    I agree with this assessment too.

    The book gives a lot of supporting argumentation for the thesis that, "the Exodus was in fact two separate exoduses". I think that the arguments are strongly supported. I think that it would even be possible to add a few additional arguments that do not even appear in the book.

    This book is not a warmed over, repackaged version of Hans Goedicke, Ian Wilson, or Simcha Jacobovici. It is a new theory with many new and highly original ideas. This book does an exceptional job of weaving the textual and archaeological evidence together in a way that works without resorting to revisionist chronologies and far-fetched scenarios that have been discredited by other scholars. It is well researched and it is very "coherent". It does an exceptional job of fitting the seemingly discrepant pieces of the puzzle together in a way that ends up making a lot of sense. I recommend it to everyone for thoughtful consideration.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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