I’ve had a look at the paper Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta. As far as I can tell it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I’m not submitting this to ResearchBlogging, because half of it I cannot reasonably critique, but the other half is poor. So poor I’ve left this overnight before posting, because I thought I was being unfair, but I might be too kind.
To start with the better part, Drews and Han propose that wind setdown could leave a clear route across a body of water that, if it had happened in 1250BC, would have allowed Israelites to escape from Egypt. It would require several hours of a steady wind at around 28m/s, but according to the models it could clear leave clear mudflats. My initial response is sceptical because if a lot of things then many more things could happen. The inclusion of the report by Major-General Tulloch is therefore very important, because it means that Drew and Han can show that this effect can happen. That’s important because then, regardless of whether or not the discussion is relevant to the Exodus, Drew and Han have found something that may be useful.
The idea that the Exodus was assisted by wind setdown is not new. Doron Nof published a few papers on this in the 1990s. It’s not common, but there seem to be enough reports to suggest that it can happen on shallow bodies of water around the Nile Delta.
I’m see no reason to disagree with the physics. Sadly I also see no point in disagreeing with the physics, because no matter how good the physics and modeling is, the history is bad.
As far as the history goes, the authors state: “The present study treats the Exodus 14 narrative as an interesting and ancient story of uncertain origin.” I’m not sure it does. They mention Moses crossed the Red Sea in Exodus 14, and that’s as far as the historical discussion goes. That’s not a problem if the aim of the paper is to examine wind setdown effects in the 19th century on Lake Manzala, but it’s eccentric to ignore the history if you’re attempting to solve a historical problem and Exodus is a huge problem.
The biggest problem is whether or not the Exodus happened. There is no archaeological evidence for the Exodus and the evidence points to Israel and Judah forming from Canaanite kingdoms. I don’t see that as a terminal problem for the Drew and Han paper — if they’re interested in wind setdown generically — but it surely merits a mention? So if the Exodus didn’t happen, then why is it interesting?
It’s interesting because even if it didn’t happen around 1300BC, it’s a story that the Israelites told about their origins in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Whether or not those beliefs about what happened seven hundred years earlier are accurate is another matter. This isn’t an error unique to Drew and Han. There are ancient historians who treat Thucydides as a source of bankable facts about Greece in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, despite these stories being later rationalisations about why things were the way things were. There’s a great paper by Moses Finley on the Trojan War about how much ‘history’ is romanticised events. There are all sorts of questions that arise from this. Why did the Israelites portray themselves as outsiders? What does it tell us about relationships between the Jews and the self-identified native peoples? What does it say about relations with Egypt at the time of writing?
Without paying any attention to the historical context the ensuing discussion becomes worthless. Drew and Han move crossing of the Exodus to Lake Tanis. What historical reason is there for this? As far as I can tell none. The reason they seem to move the crossing to Lake Tanis is that if they do so, their effect works. From a historical perspective the argument is “If we assume the crossing occurred in 1250BC at Lake Tanis, then we can conclude the most likely place for the crossing was Lake Tanis in 1250BC.” In reality they could be right, but if they are why is this not reflected in the history? What was the situation 700 years later? If small wind setdown events were common, could these be an inspiration for a big event? Whatever this paper explains, it does not explain how the Israelites got the story of their crossing of the Red Sea. As far as examining a supposed historical event goes, the paper is wholly inadequate.
Despite that should the paper have been accepted for publication? I’m not sure. If the journal were the Public Library of History then definitely not. If however the meteorological modeling is sound, and it contributes to the understanding of modern wind setdown, then the world is a better place for having the paper published. If it’s only value is the discussion of a historical event with no consideration of the historical context then it’s an oddity. It simply replaces a physical mystery with another historical mystery. If you’re interested in the Exodus as a historical event then that’s no answer at all, in which case why write the paper?