Monday, January 21, 2013

The Miracles of Exodus: a scientist's discovery of the extraordinary natural causes of the Biblical stories

Cambridge professor, Colin J. Humphreys has written a lively discussion about the Israelite Exodus from Egypt.  His enthusiasm for the Biblical narrative exudes throughout the pages and he is convinced of the historicity of the Bible and attempts to prove its narrative by identifying the miracles of the Exodus with scientific natural phenomena.  He puts forth an entertaining prose in reinterpreting the 'Burning Bush' as a volcanic vent, the crossing of the Jordan river on dry land due to an up-river mudslide that damns up the river momentarily, the crossing of the Red Sea as 'wind set-up' at the Gulf of Aqaba (because the conditions are perfect there), Mount Sinai is an active volcano thus forcing one to place it in South Western Arabia where there are volcanoes (there are no volcanoes in the Sinai desert).  The 'pillar of fire by night' and the 'cloud of glory by day'  that guide the Israelite nation are emissions from the volcano that are always seen even at great distances.  He interprets the Hebrew word that is usually translated as 'one thousand' as a 'troop', thus downgrading the size of the Children of Israel from over 2 million to 20,000.  Downgrading the size of the Exodus eases the burden of finding provisions and water in the wilderness.

Clearly Professor Humphrey is targeting the skeptic, or one not convinced of the veracity of the Bible.  He argues that the scientist can easily accept the natural explanations as described.  He passionately and enthusiastically sees obvious miracles in what happened in the Hebrew Bible not as beyond nature but rather as unusually timed occurrences.  He sees the Ten Plagues as a natural sequence of related events causing devastating damage to Egypt.  He admits that the slaying of the First Born is difficult. The professor, nevertheless, interprets their death as caused by toxins in the remaining food supply and their privilege and status gave them priority in eating first and thus dying immediately.

When I was studying at Yeshiva University, I once heard a teacher say something that would surely resonate with Professor Humphreys: 'one should rely on faith only when one has to!'  This means one should always attempt to exhaust all scientific explanations before one relies on one's faith.

For a believer in creation ex nihilo, however, Professor Humphreys unnecessarily reduces the meaning of 'signs and wonders'.  He makes an assumption that one need not agree: that the miracles are scientific phenomena and not beyond nature!  The Gd of the Bible is the author of nature, thus, He can easily manipulate it and go beyond it.

Furthermore, there also seems to be somewhat of a Hegelian approach to the ancient world that one need not agree: that people were primitive, not knowing what they were seeing!  Maybe they actually describe what they saw accurately!  In other words, perhaps, Mount Sinai is not a volcano and the description that Professor Humphreys labels as a volcano is indeed a Divine Manifestation, Gd revealing Himself in all His Glory!  And if indeed, Mount Sinai was not a volcano there is no compelling reason to place it in Arabia.

I am not sure that this book will convince the skeptic and it seems unnecessary for a believer in miracles that go beyond nature.  This contribution was, nevertheless, a refreshing read for its enthusiasm alone.

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