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In Exodus 12:29-32 (NASB)

29 Now it came about at midnight that the Lord struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of cattle. 30 And Pharaoh got up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no home where there was not someone dead. 31 Then he called for Moses and Aaron at night and said, “Rise up, get out from among my people, both you and the sons of Israel; and go, worship the Lord, as you have said. 32 Take both your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and go, and bless me also.”

and in Exodus 14:27 (NASB)

27 So Moses reached out with his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal state at daybreak, while the Egyptians were fleeing right into it; then the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea.

points that they crossed the Red Sea in one night.

How long did they take to cross?

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  • Can you prove from the text that the 'midnight' and the 'daybreak' were the same night ? – Nigel J Feb 12 at 19:40
  • @NigelJ just reformulated instead – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Feb 12 at 19:41
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    [Numbers 33:3-8] states that they took 3-days to reach the Sea at פִּ֣י הַחִירֹ֔ת Pi-hahiroth after leaving רַעְמְסֵס֙ Rameses, and they crossed הַיָּֽם The-Sea in 1-day. – חִידָה Feb 12 at 21:40
  • @חִידָה The three days begin after they reached the sea - Exodus 15:22-23. – user21676 Feb 13 at 11:05
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[Numbers 33:3-8] recounts the Exodus from רַעְמְסֵס֙ Rameses to "The Sea" Ha-Yam הַיָּֽם at פִּ֣י הַחִירֹ֔ת Pi-hahiroth took 3-days. - We see can see the phrase "[they] camped" or "Yachanu" יַּֽחֲנ֖וּ refers to the end of a day's journey.

  • 1-day to סֻכֹּֽת Succoth.
  • 1-day to אֵתָ֔ם Etham.
  • 1-day to פִּ֣י הַֽחִירֹ֔ת Pi hahiroth.

Finally 3-days after leaving Rameses, we are told in Numbers 33:8 "They journeyed from Penei hahiroth and crossed in the midst of the Sea to the desert." ( וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י הַֽחִירֹ֔ת וַיַּֽעַבְר֥וּ בְתֽוֹךְ־הַיָּ֖ם הַמִּדְבָּ֑רָה )

  • This 3-day journey to The Sea is also mentioned specifically by מֹשֶׁ֗ה Moshe in Exodus / Shemot 8:23 [MT] "So we must go a distance of three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God as He may command us.” ( דֶּ֚רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים נֵלֵ֖ךְ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וְזָבַ֙חְנוּ֙ לַֽיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֔ינוּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר יֹאמַ֥ר אֵלֵֽינוּ )

  • Crossing The-Sea הַיָּֽם at פִּ֣י הַחִירֹ֔ת Pi-hahiroth is where Exodus 14:2 starts. We are not told the duration of hours, but The Crossing did take place during 1-day [Exodus 14:30].

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"Long enough" is the short answer. Long enough for how many hundreds of thousands (or millions) of men, women and children to walk the distance, plus all their many flocks and herds. Long enough to get every last one of them safely on to the far side.

The long answer (gleaned from the account in Exodus chapter 14) provides important details. Such that it was during the night that the pillar of cloud that had been leading the way to that point where they camped "near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea" (vs. 2) moved away from the front to the back of the company. This blocked Pharaoh's army from getting any closer:

"The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other; so neither went near the other all night long." (vss. 19-20)

Also during that night "Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. (vs. 21)

That takes up the events of the entire night. It is surely right to say that such divine action while Moses' hand was stretched out is a vital part of the crossing of the sea. After all, without it, the company could never have even started to cross. Your comment implies that you take the night to be the time period and this information in Exodus 13:21 shows that the crossing could have commenced during the night:

"By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night."

After all, nobody was going to get much sleep that night anyway - what with the army at their back though blocked by the pillar of cloud coming between them, Moses standing with arm outstretched while a fierce, supernatural wind blasted in, and the pillar of fire at the front, showing the parting of the waters into two walls while the sea-bed dried out sufficiently to take the weight of that huge gathering. The pillar of fire moving ahead was their signal to start marching between the walls of water. And that could have begun during the night. But the Bible does not say exactly when the march began, nor when it finished. It could well have started during the night, continued through dawn and gone on for as many hours of daylight as was needed to get them all safely across. The pillar of cloud at their back continued to prevent the Egyptian army from getting close - until God removed it so that they would career into the still-opened channel, and then discover it was now their watery grave.

Given that it's unlikely the army would have ventured into that channel during hours of darkness (no pillar of flame for them), I would assume the same day that the nation completed the crossing, in daylight, would be the day of that army's total defeat. But the account adds that “it came to pass that in the morning watch” the Lord began to dismantle the chariot wheels and the army became bogged down, unable to go back to the dry land they had come from (vs. 24). We might assume that that was the same morning, but what if it was the following morning before the crossing was completed? It would also help if we knew how broad the dry channel was, but we are not told, so those are unknowns.

For sure, night-time was no problem for commencing the crossing, given the pillar of light at their front, and the awesome sight would go on for as many hours as was required until that “morning watch” when God began to trouble the army in the midst of the still opened sea.

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The text of Ex 12.29-32 indeed says that in the night Pharoah gave the order that all the Israelites and their animals must leave.

However just because the order was given at night did not mean that they all left at night, or even in a single day, or even a single year. We don't know. We have no information from scripture about how long it took the people to leave, and this is a general feature of these accounts, simply because that wasn't what mattered to the story. Moreover we have no information about the workings of Egyptian bureacracy or the various communications that would need to go out from the Palace to coordinate the expulsion. Finally on issues of how much time it took to organize that, I wouldn't put much stock in oral tradition as recorded roughly 2000 years after these events.

I do notice this as being an idee fixe for modern readers, that they need to know how many days between this and that, but that's not how these ancient accounts work. It could have been 10 years between the plague of frogs and the plague of darkness. All we know is that one thing happend and then another thing happened. Don't assume that because the text doesn't say "on the next day" that two things mentioned sequentially in the text must occur on the same day, or even in the same year.

That is a modern way of reading these texts that will lead you astray.

Rather, follow the following exegetical practices:

  • view the text as a curated sequence of events recounted for a narrative purpose, one in which entire lifetimes are give only a single sentence, and many lifetimes can pass between two sentences.

  • Assume significant gaps are everywhere because only what was critical to the cosmic narrative was included (and also because this was handwritten on goatskin).

  • Be aware that considerations of durations are rarely of sufficient interest to the ancient narrators as to be included in the text except to teach some lesson (e.g fasting for 40 days, or wandering for forty years). The flipside of every yod having a meaning is that most stuff will get left out, and only the distilled essence is written down. Only those things that further the narrative are included, and everything else is discarded.

As to the next text:

And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned at daybreak to its normal level, and the Egyptians were fleeing because of it, and Yahweh swept the Egyptians into the middle of the sea.

Nowhere here does the text say that the daybreak was after Pharoah gave the order, or that everything before the daybreak happened in one day, nor does it suggest that. When you say that you believe it suggests that, it's a marker that you are bringing modern sensibilities to an ancient semitic account, and in that case it is no wonder that you will be left with a lot of questions. Those modern sensibilities don't belong in the account.

A year could have passed between Pharoah giving the order and the red sea crossing. Or 2 years. And the text provides no information about how long the crossing took. It could have taken a week. Or a month. Or a day. These durations are simply irrelevant to the story and so are left out. All we know is that after the crossing was complete by the Israelites, Moses stretched out his hand at daybreak and the waters closed. Before that, God was holding the sea back. Then at dawn, God stopped holding the sea back, and the Egyptians that were following the Israelite army were killed. They could have been following for an hour or for a week or for a month. Now you can turn to the written oral traditions to try to fill in the blanks, but these require an additional level of critical exegesis of their own, as they also don't care about how long something took, except to make their own points which are often very different concerns, themselves in a different milieu from those of the narrator.

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    +1. I fully agree and support that scripture narratives express that which is relevant and do not, unnecessarily, add details (such as, in this case, a 'timeline') where it does not further the purpose of the account. – Nigel J Feb 12 at 21:34
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    I do not agree with this at all. The bible is quite clear about how old Moses was when he left the place, how old he was when he came back, and how long the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, and how old Moses was when he died. The Exodus, especially in light of the passover, and 3 day journey, was in a relatively short period of time. The plagues brought down on Egyptians would have been meaningless unless they were close together...certainly not years! – Adam Feb 13 at 15:50
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    All the Bible says is that Moses was 80 years old when he spoke to Pharoah and 120 years old when he died in Sinai, so that the generation of the Exodus didn't reach the promise except for Joshua and Caleb. Everything else -- the distribution of what events took how long -- is omitted. So again, you have to read the text carefully and try to make as few assumptions as possible due to the cultural gaps between modern western narrative conventions and an ancient semitic ones. – Robert Feb 13 at 20:43
  • @Adam That is a speculation, regarding the plagues and their duration. There is no evidence as to how long that period took. It was certainly not short. It could have definitely been years. Of course it could. – Nigel J Feb 13 at 21:23
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    an interesting read on possible time frame...ourancientpaths.org/post/how-long-did-the-plagues-of-egypt-last – Adam Feb 16 at 4:06
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I'm only talking about the time it takes to cross from the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea to the other shore of freedom.

Exodus 14:21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided

I'd say that it took them 6 hours to cross the sea.

Here is a rough calculation.
3 million people at 1 thousand abreast gives a matrix of 3k rows by 1k columns.
2 m of space in front of you for your animals.
This gap of 2 m between each row of people makes the line 6 km long.
At a walking speed of 6 km/hour, all the people and animals can pass a given point in 1 hour.
In 5 hours, a person can walk 30 km on dry sea bottom from the Egyptian shore to the other shore.
In 6 hours, the entire matrix can pass this Red Sea.

If you think there are more people, just increase the number of persons abreast. The 6 hours will hold.

If you think the average speed is less than 6km/hour, just decrease the 30 km dry sea bottom. The 6 hours will hold.

Obviously, I do not expect the Israelites and the animals to line up orderly to form a model matrix and march through the sea bed by the drumbeat. These numbers are average model statistics. They can be inputted into a computer simulation to show millions of people and animals all over the place walking along the dried sea bed. Some walk faster, some slower. Sometimes, some will even go the wrong direction to e.g., watch the fish swimming by the sea walls while their fathers frantically looking for them. These chaotic behaviors are fine and expected as long as overall they exhibit the average statistics. The simulation will show that the entire population will cross in 6 hours even with these random chaotic behaviors.

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  • i reformulated the question – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Feb 12 at 19:45
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    This is very, very unlikely, if not nigh impossible. Crowds do not behave like that. Nor animals. It sounds dangerous to me, as you have suggested the operation. There is no evidence it all happened in a single day as other answers demonstrate. I don't think you need to rely on this unlikely scenario. No need. – Nigel J Feb 13 at 21:27
  • Good point. I clarified. – Tony Chan Feb 13 at 22:02
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Exodus 5
1Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’ ”

2Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”

3Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.”

It took multiple days according to their initial estimate.

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