Sunday, February 20, 2022
Bible & Archaeology (University of Iowa)

It is a popular biblical miracle, and it actually occurs more that once. But exactly how many times are waters miraculously parted in the Bible? And if we set aside the story of God separating the primordial waters in Genesis 1:6 before dry land and earth were even created, we must ask how many characters in the Bible part waters?

Since most people have at least heard the Exodus story, the most common guess is one: Moses parting the Red Sea during the Exodus to allow the Hebrews to escape from the fast-approaching Egyptian army.

Some people assume that Jesus must have done this as well and guess the answer is two. However, while Jesus is said to have commanded and controlled watery storms (Mark 4:35–41; Matthew 8:18–27, Luke 8:22–25), to have walked on water (Mark 6:45–52, Matthew 14:22–33, John 6:15–21), and to have turned water into wine (John 2:1–11), he never actually parts water.

The answer is four.

"The Children of Israel Crossing the Red Sea" by Frédéric Schopin
Frédéric Schopin (1804–1880). "The Children of Israel Crossing the Red Sea" c.1855. Oil on canvas. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery (Image credit: Bristol Museum & Art Gallery)

The first two characters that part water come as a related pair. Moses parts the Red (or Reed) Sea to signal the end of the period of slavery for the Hebrews and the start of their Wandering toward the Promised Land in Exodus 14:21–22: "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left."

Similarly, Joshua (with the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant) is said to part the Jordan River to end the Wandering and begin the conquest of the Promised Land in Joshua 3:15–17: "When those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off...while those flowing toward...the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan."

The other two characters are also a related pair. The prophet Elijah parts the Jordan River in 2 Kings 2:8 on his way out of Israel just before he ascends into heaven: "Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground."

Likewise, his successor Elisha parts the Jordan River in 2 Kings 2:14 to re-enter Israel after witnessing Elijah ascend on a flaming chariot within a whirlwind: "He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, 'Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?' When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over."

The four characters who part waters actually form two parallel, related pairs. Many of the stories of Elijah recall important moments in Moses’s career. They both control weather and battle the religious leaders of a rival god (Exodus 5–12; 1 Kings 17–18), meet God on Mt. Sinai/Horeb (Exodus 19:20-25; 1 Kings 19), and experience special deaths witnessed by their successors just outside the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34; 2 Kings 2). And like Joshua, Elisha parts the Jordan River so that he can enter the Promised Land and begin his mission at Jericho (Joshua 6–7; 2 Kings 2:15–22).

So the answer to the question of how many characters part waters in the Bible is four: Moses, Joshua (and the priests with the Ark), Elijah, and Elisha.