Instead of using modern hours and minutes, the Ancient day was broken up into descriptive chunks of time. The nighttime was made up of several nightly watches. For more on Exodus Timekeeping, see my previous post.
The Romans divided the night into four watches, (Latin vigiliae plural), following the Greek practice. “In the fourth watch of night” (quarta vigilia noctis) meant just before dawn. The four night watches were called prima vigilia, secunda vigilia, tertia vigilia, and quarta vigilia, and the intervals of time were tracked using water clocks.Roman timekeeping
The Roman method of 4 watches dates back to about the 2nd-3rd centuries BCE. The Ancient Greeks also had 4 watches, in about the 4th century BCE. The Jews though, had 3 watches.
The Jews, like the Greeks and Romans, divided the night into military watches instead of hours, each watch representing the period for which sentinels or pickets remained on duty. The proper Jewish reckoning recognized only three such watches, entitled the first or “beginning of the watches,” (Lamentations 2:19) the middle watch, (Judges 7:19) and the morning watch. (Exodus 14:24; 1 Samuel 11:11) These would last respectively from sunset to 10 P.M.; from 10 P.M. to 2 A.M.; and from 2 A.M. to sunrise.Smith’s Bible Dictionary
After the establishment of the Roman supremacy, the number of watches was increased to four, which were described either according to their numerical order, as in the case of the “fourth watch,” (Matthew 14:25) or by the terms “even,” “midnight,” “cock-crowing” and “morning.” (Mark 13:35) These terminated respectively at 9 P.M., midnight, 3 A.M. and 6 A.M.
The morning watch is the only one mentioned in Torah, and it is only mentioned once. The Hebrews are in the midst of crossing the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army has followed them through the narrow place between the two walls of water.
It came about in the morning watch that the Lord looked down over the Egyptian camp through a pillar of fire and cloud, and He threw the Egyptian camp into confusion.Exodus 14:24
Rashi interprets the passage as follows:
It came about in the morning watch: Heb. בְּאַֹשְמֹרֶת. The three parts of the night are called, אַשְׁמוּרוּת, watches (Ber. 3b), and the one [watch] before morning is called אַשְׁמֹרֶתהַבֹּקֶר, the morning watch. I say that because the night is divided into the watches of the songs of the ministering angels, one group after another into three parts, it is called אַשְׁמֹרֶת, watch. This is what Onkelos [means when he] renders מַטְּרַת.
The Egyptians get stuck in the mud then try to head back and fail. God instructs Moses to close the waters and drown Pharaoh’s army. This is the next mention of time in the story.
So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and toward morning the sea returned to its strength, as the Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the Lord stirred the Egyptians into the sea.Exodus 14:27
Morning Watch to Morning
So, they probably didn’t have watches in Ancient Egypt, at least outside of the military or palace security, if there. I could not find mention of watches of any sort before the Hellenistic/Roman period. But I still want to see how to interpret the story using the language of the time period when the Torah was written and compiled.
The question is, how much time elapses between Pharaoh’s army giving chase and when the Hebrews are safe on the far shore and the army drowns? We don’t know exactly when the army enters the path through the sea, but it is during the night, as the Hebrews began their crossing at night.
For those of us unfamiliar with the watches, it sounds like there is no time at all. Morning watch implies morning, but it means a watch ending at morning. The elapsed time, therefore, was several hours. The quote above assumes each watch lasts 4 hours, but they would have been divided instead based on the length of the night.
We don’t know the exact date or place of the crossing but we can assume it is late April in the vicinity of the Red Sea Governorate, Egypt. Let’s choose April 21, 2020 (the calculator goes back no earlier than the year 1600 CE, but the times only differ by a couple of minutes; you get a larger shift just by moving the day).
It’s about 11 hours from sunset to sunrise.
What Is Twilight?
You may notice that there are 3 different definitions of twilight (the transitions between day and night and night and day). Jewish law is rather conflicted about the details, in part because it depends a lot on location and instead defers to “3 stars in the sky” for evening twilight. But mostly it is Astronomical Twilight that is used, or a portion of it for locations not near the equator.
Time and Date describes it well: “Twilight is the time between day and night when there is light outside, but the Sun is below the horizon. The morning twilight is often called dawn, while the evening is also known as dusk.”
- Sun is less than 6 degrees below the horizon.
- Brightest form of twilight. There is enough natural sunlight to carry out outdoor activities. Only the brightest celestial objects can be observed by the naked eye during this time.
- Sun is between 6 degrees and 12 degrees below the horizon.
- Artificial light is generally required for outdoor activities.
- Most stars can be easily seen with naked eyes.
- Sun is between 12 degrees and 18 degrees below the horizon.
- In the morning, the sky is completely dark before the onset of astronomical twilight.
- In the evening, the sky becomes completely dark at the end of astronomical twilight.
For the Red Sea crossing, the moon was waning and half full. It was fully night about an hour and a half after sunset. They could start to see stars about almost half an hour after sunset.
As they emerged on the other side of the Red Sea in the wee hours, it was completely dark until nearly an hour and a half before sunrise. Less than half an hour before sunrise, they would have enough sunlight to find their way (God’s pillar of fire leading them would not be necessary).
So how long was the night?
- Full and total darkness, with nothing but a half moon (and the aforementioned pillar of fire) to see by (astronomical): 8 hours
- Moderate to full darkness (nautical): 9 hours
- Slight to full darkness (civil): 10 hours
- Sunset to sunrise: 11 hours
If we assume that 3 or more stars were easily visible in the sky during the entire night, that would be about nautical twilight. 9 hours. Divided by 3 watches, that’s 3 hours per watch.
The morning watch would have started 3.5 hours before sunrise, or 1:50am. Each nightly watch would have been about 3 hours long.
Sometime between 2 and 5 am, all the Hebrews are well down the sea path and some may have emerged on to the other side of the sea. The Egyptian army has followed and is completely surrounded by the sea. Their chariots stick in the mud and the army is thrown into chaos.
Morning comes around 5am and all the Hebrews are safe. All the Egyptians are still inside of the sea. God tells Moses to allow the water to return to its natural state. He does and all the Egyptians drown.