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In Exodus 15:8 this is how the parting of the Reed sea waters are described

וּבְרוּחַ אַפֶּיךָ נֶעֶרְמוּ מַיִם נִצְּבוּ כְמוֹ נֵד נֹזְלִים קָפְאוּ תְהֹמֹת בְּלֶב יָם

By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up. The surging waters stood up like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea. (NIV)

Then again in chapter 14:22

וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם בַּיַּבָּשָׁה וְהַמַּיִם לָהֶם חוֹמָה מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם

and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.

The hebrew words חומה and נד both mean walls throughout scripture, so the simplest reading of these verses would yield a supernatural occurrence of two walls of water separated by a stretch of dry land (since no other natural event would account for this).

My question is, is there another way of understanding the walls of water described in the Exodus tradition (in a non-literal sense), or is this the only plausible reading of the exodus account?

More importantly, what did the author have in mind when he wrote down this event, did he think of a miraculous wind drying up the sea before Moses similar to what is described here, or of a literal parting of the sea with water piling up on both sides?

Note: I'm not interested in anyones theories explaining how a natural occurrence would have led to such an incredible tradition of the israelites walking between walls of water. My only objective here is to try to understand how the author understood the Reed sea event to be, and what he had in mind when he wrote these verses?

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First of all, for Exodus15:8 please check up various other translations. You easily discover that נד as in Exodus15:8 is translated as "heap" or as "hill". This is the most common translation, and not "wall". See for instance ASV, AKJV, JPS Tanakh, ESV, etc.

And this is different from Exodus14:22, where we read חומה , which is indeed "a wall".

Now let's return to נד. We also find this in:

Joshua 3:13 And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap. (ESV)

This is about the Jordan River which stopped flowing opposite Jericho, when the Israelites crossed over following Joshua.

Another interesting place:

Psalm 33:7 He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; he puts the deeps in storehouses. (ESV)

This is a Psalm of praise, referring to the power of God made manifest during creation and during the crossing of the Red Sea and using the same word in both cases.

And somewehere else in the Psalms, referring specifically to Genesis 15:8:

Psalm 78:13 He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap.(ESV)

All of these fragments are describing a miracle of divine control of the Lord over His creation.

Now, as dictionaries let us know, נד means something piled up on itself (see Strong's Hebrew #5067. See also W. Baker, The complete word study dictionary : Old Testament. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2003)

This, I think, describes very well the image that the author is intending to convey.

In addition to these, there is something that you may find useful, that I am quoting just as it is from the JPS Torah Commentary for Exodus15:8:

"The waters are positioned in three stages:

  • the blast of Your nostrils. Similar poetic imagery for the wind is found in 2 Samuel 22:16.30

  • piled up. An ancient tradition, preserved in Targum Onkelos and the Mekhilta,(MdRY Beshallaḥ, Shirta 6, p. 137, Ibn Ezra, Lek. Tov; so Malbim) construes the unique Hebrew neʿermu as though deriving not from ʿaremah, “a heap, pile,”(Cf. Jer. 50:26; Hag. 2:18; Song 7:3; Ruth 3:7; Neh. 13:15 (cf. 3:34); 2 Chron. 31:6, 9) but from ʿormah, “cunning, shrewdness.”(Cf. Exod. 21:14; Josh. 9:4; Prov. 1:4; 8:5, 12) This is taken as an allusion to retributive justice. The Egyptians “dealt shrewdly” with the Israelites, a policy that led to the decree to drown the Israelite males; now the waters deal with equal shrewdness in drowning the oppressors.(Exod. 1:10, 22, although a different verb is used there; but cf. Prov. 8:12.)

  • like a wall. Literally, “like a mound [of earth].” (Cf. Josh. 3:13, 16; Pss. 33:7; 78:13)

  • froze. They coagulated and formed a solid mass.(Cf. Job 10:10)"

[Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus. English and Hebrew; commentary in English. The JPS Torah commentary, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, p. 78]

At your request I am expanding the JPS Torah Commentary for Exodus15:8 so as in a brief synopsis. I made some interventions in the original text taken from the JPS Torah Commentary. This is why I decided to keep the quote above just as it is to have it as a reference and in the hope that perhaps it would work out for you as a synthesis to guide you throughout this maze:

"The waters are positioned in three stages:

the blast of Your nostrils. Similar poetic imagery for the wind is found in 2 Samuel 22:16.

2 Samuel 22:16

Then the channels of the sea were seen; the foundations of the world were laid bare, at the rebuke of the LORD, at the blast of the breath of his nostrils.(ESV)

piled up. An ancient tradition, preserved in Targum Onkelos and the Mekhilta,(MdRY Beshallaḥ, Shirta 6, p. 137, Ibn Ezra, Lek. Tov; so Malbim) construes the unique Hebrew neʿermu as though deriving not from ʿaremah, “a heap, pile” but from ʿormah, “cunning, shrewdness”.

Here, Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Shirata, VI goes as follows:

  1. A. "At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up:" B. With the measure with which they meted out to others was their measure meted out to them: C. They had said, "Come, let us deal wisely with them" (Ex. 1:10). D. So you for your part made the water shrewd, so that the water made war against them and carried out a variety of punishments against them: C. "At the blast of your nostrils the waters became tricky." Justice means, with the measure with which they meted out to others was their measure meted out to them. The entire Song is made into an exercise in the realization of God's rule through justice.

[I quote this from Jacob Neusner, A Theological Commentary to the Midrash, vol. 9. Mekhilta attributed to Rabbi Ishmael, University Press of America, 2001, p. 92]

Now the biblical verses:

  1. neʿermu deriving from ʿaremah, “a heap, pile,”

Jer. 50:26:

Come against her from every quarter; open her granaries; pile her up like heaps [עֲרֵמִ֖ים] of grain, and devote her to destruction .... (ESV)

Song 7:3

Your breasts are like two fawns, twin fawns of a gazelle. (ESV) שְׁנֵ֥י שָׁדַ֛יִךְ כִּשְׁנֵ֥י עֳפָרִ֖ים תָּאֳמֵ֥י צְבִיָּֽה׃ (WLC)

Ruth 3:7:

And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain [הָעֲרֵמָ֑ה]. (ESV)

Neh. 13:15 (cf. 3:34)

In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain [הָעֲרֵמ֣וֹת] and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. (ESV)

2 Chron. 31:6, 9

And the people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of the dedicated things that had been dedicated to the LORD their God, and laid them in heaps [עֲרֵמ֥וֹת]. (ESV)

2. neʿermu as though deriving from ʿormah, “cunning, shrewdness.”

Exod. 21:14

But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning [בְעָרְמָ֑ה], you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.(ESV)

Josh. 9:4

... they on their part acted with cunning [בְּעָרְמָ֔ה] and went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, ...(ESV)

Prov. 1:4

... to give prudence [עָרְמָ֑ה] to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth (ESV)

Prov. 8:5, 12

O simple ones, learn prudence [עָרְמָ֑ה]; O fools, learn sense.

This is taken as an allusion to retributive justice. The Egyptians “dealt shrewdly” with the Israelites, a policy that led to the decree to drown the Israelite males; now the waters deal with equal shrewdness in drowning the oppressors.(Exod. 1:10, 22, although a different verb is used there; but cf. Prov. 8:12.) Just as in Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Shirata, VI as seen above:

Exodus 1:10, 22

Come, let us deal shrewdly [נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה] with them ...[...] Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.” (ESV)

CF Prov 8:12

I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion.(ESV) אֲ‍ֽנִי־חָ֭כְמָה שָׁכַ֣נְתִּי עָרְמָ֑ה וְדַ֖עַת מְזִמֹּ֣ות אֶמְצָֽא׃ (WLC)

like a wall. Literally, “like a mound [of earth].” (Cf. Josh. 3:13, 16; Ps. 33:7; Ps. 78:13 /// please find those listed above in my reply.

froze. They coagulated and formed a solid mass.(Cf. ....

Job 10:10

Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me [תַּקְפִּיאֵֽנִי] like cheese? (ESV)

So, there is most likely that Exodus15:8 is describing a miraculous event, first of all. As about what did the author have in mind and how he understood this event ... who can tell? On the other hand, yes, it seems that there is a non-literal way of understanding the heap of water, if you follow the suggestions found in the JPS Torah Commentary. Sorry I haven't got enough time to do it now myself, I'd really love to do it.

I would suggest some further reading on this very interesting topic: Jonathan Kaplan, My Perfect One: Typology and Early Rabbinic Interpretation of Song of Songs, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 50, 59-60

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On the Passover, the door posts for each household were marked in three places. There were thousands of doors needed and used to enter thousands of places of safety.

The people then left traveling as a group to the Red Sea. When the waters parted forming walls, there was a single point of entry and exit. All of the people entered through the same opening; traveled through the same passageway and exited through the same opening (on the other side). The "material" which formed the passageway was salt water from the Red Sea. Therefore, the openings on either side were identical and the appearance would be the same regardless of whether a person looked at the opening before, or after crossing.

Because the salt water formed walls, there was, in effect, a single door which the people entered and exited. The people went in and came out to find safety. Unlike the night of the Passover where many doors were used to bring people safely through the night, the use of salt water for "walls" brought everyone to safety by use of a single point of entry which could be called a door.

In ordered to be saved from Pharaoh the people needed to enter by the way the LORD made. Those who entered by the LORD went in and came out were saved:

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night. (Exodus 14:19-20 ESV)

Creating a single opening foreshadows what Jesus would later say:

I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. (John 10:9 ESV)

There is a single door which a person must use to go in and come out to be saved.

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  • Intresting. How much salt one need to do that again? – A. Meshu Jun 7 '18 at 18:08
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Gersonides in his commentary indeed explains that the verses cannot mean that the sea was split with walls of water on either side. This cannot be, he says, because walls of water are an impossibility in nature and miracles can only generate something that can exist in nature. Instead it means that a lot of water was pushed to one side by the wind that had been blowing the entire night. (Note that though this is largely a theological argument, and many theologians vociferously disagreed with Gersonides on this theological issue, he does still claim that this is the meaning of the text.)

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