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.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

God & Man at Yale by William F. Buckley Jr.

I noticed a contemporary report about what is going on at Yale and on the back cover of the book was a statement claiming that there was a 1951 precursor  to that contemporary volume.  Instead of reading the more modern book I found the original to be a controversial statement that propelled Mr. Buckley to his fame as a proponent of the political right.  God & Man at Yale is a cogent argument that education should be influenced by the values that the private institution wants to promote.  That there is no infringement on personal freedom since the individual is not forced to go to that private institution.

Buckley's undergraduate experience at Yale introduced him to surprising attitudes that he did not expect to find at a Christian private university.  He found the famed Religion department to be composed of mostly secular, agnostic or even atheistic scholars.  He found the Economics department to promote 'collectivist' approaches as opposed to 'capitalistic' ones in explaining the national economy; the department of Sociology was outwardly hostile toward religion and belief in God.

He uncovers in Yale's defense of 'Academic Freedom' bias in favor of the political left. He puts forth the argument that a Christian college should a least be influenced by the Christian auspices as they manifest themselves in the administration and Alumni associations and other ruling bodies. Mr. Buckley also reveals the somewhat duplicitous nature of the school administration when it espouses the advantages of capitalism and free markets over Socialism and Communism but refrains from exercising its power to control the teaching faculty that espouses those collective social experiments.

I think Mr. Buckley could not fathom why Yale was not similar to a college like Pepperdine.  Pepperdine was founded with private money from a religious Christian and strives to teach in an environment promoting Christian spiritual values. I fully relate to Mr. Buckley's arguments.  His arguments support the concepts behind a Touro College, a Yeshiva University and a Hebrew Theological College where the education is influenced by the values of traditional Judaism. Their staff is picked based on scholarship and religious attitudes that the schools want to promote.

Academic freedom would mean that one is free to chose from a plethora of educational opportunities that offer differing approaches.  One is free to choose between a public secular college like the University of California and a private religious institution like Yeshiva University.  When one chooses a particular college, however, one should not be confused or surprised about the kind of education one will receive.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Spies Against Armageddon by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman

A basic history of Israel's intelligence community is presented in Dan Raviv's and Yossi Melman's Spies Against Armageddon.  The book touches on every major tumultuous event in Israel's brief existence and tells a hidden story of espionage, betrayal and assassinations.  There are some salient features worth mentioning.  The book discusses the essence of good intelligence gathering, how a democratic country justifies targeted killings and explains why Jonathan Pollard received such a disproportionate sentence in comparison to other spies who sold American secrets.

Good espionage is founded on the principle of finding reliable opposition to existing adversaries and paying for information.  Israel has been incredibly successful in ferreting out people willing to offer information about people (governments) they despise.  Nurturing the opposition bears much fruit in intelligence gathering.  The ability to place Israeli spies like Eli Cohen in enemy high places is highly unusual and rarely effective.  As a matter of fact, countries that find out that Israel has forged their passports to enable spying in other countries retaliate diplomatically.  The most effective way is to find an asset in the targeted country and nurture the asset.

Because Israel has many hostile adversaries that declare its illegitimacy determined to 'liberate' it and use tactics of terror to wage battles, conventional warfare has proven ineffective as a response.  Israel has met this unconventional war on its own terms and has deemed those who plan and perpetrate suicide bombings, and terrorist attacks against civilian populations as combatants of war. A proactive strike against a combatant or targeting them for execution has been adjudicated with approval.  The authors point out that targeted killings is not very common in the grand scheme of the Mossad and is only approved in extreme cases.

The case of Jonathan Pollard has baffled many on different levels.  How could someone so unstable be given high security clearance?  How could someone go rogue in the Israeli intelligence community to 'handle' him without approval?  Why such a harsh life sentence for espionage against an ally.  (The infamous Walker spy ring got less than 30 years for selling material to the US adversary, the Russians!?)  The book makes a claim that the US needed to send a message that it would not tolerate such abuse of Jewish Americans on the part of  Israel.  I did not find this reason so convincing in contrast to 6 former Attorney Generals advocating Pollard's release for time served.  I have always felt that somehow Casper Weinberger overreacted in writing a damning brief that over-ruled the original plea bargain.  In his memoir, Weinberger hardly mentions the Pollard affair.  One would think there would be more to say about something supposedly  called 'the worst breach of national security ever!'

This book was a very interesting read because it uncovered a hidden world of espionage smoothly connecting to conventional politics.