Among the difficult passages that are hard to explain, three texts in the Old Testament have been the focus of intense scrutiny from people who are antagonistic to the claims of the Bible and from people who believe that the Bible presents a true account of what happened in the distant past. These three texts are the passages in Exodus dealing with the plagues that came upon Egypt, the sun standing still in the days of Joshua, and the return of the shadow ten degrees on the dial of Ahaz.
One controversial attempt at explaining these three texts was provided by Immanuel Velikovsky in his book Worlds in Collision (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950). Velikovsky’s theory is unique and has engendered a lively debate among scientists and Biblical scholars concerning the merits of his proposal.
One of my readers asked me to study and evaluate Velikovsky’s reconstruction of ancient history as developed in his books Ages in Chaos (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1952) and People of the Sea (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1977). Because I had not read any of Velikovsky’s books, I decided to read these three books before I passed judgment on Velikovsky’s reconstruction of history.
After finishing reading the books, I have decided to review Velikovsky’s three books as follows:
First, the present post will review Velikovsky’s theory presented in Worlds in Collision.
Second, I will write another post reviewing Ages in Chaos and People of the Sea.
Since Velikovsky’s reconstruction of history is based on the theory he developed in Worlds in Collision, I must begin my evaluation of Velikovsky’s reconstruction of ancient history with his basic work.
The Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 7:14-11:10)
According to Velikovsky, the events related to the ten plagues that struck Egypt at the time of the Exodus was caused by a comet that passed close to earth around 1500 B.C. This comet eventually became the planet Venus. Velikovsky describes this event:
“A celestial body that only shortly has become a member of the solar system–a new comet–came very close to the earth . . . The comet was on its way from its perihelion and touched the earth first with its gaseous tail . . . One of the first visible signs of this encounter was the reddening of the earth’s surface by a fine dust of rusty pigment. In sea, lake, and river this pigment gave a bloody coloring to the water” (p. 48).
Velikovsky believes that the “Papyrus Ipuwer”, published under the title Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage provides an eyewitness of the tragic events caused by the approaching comet. In addition to this Egyptian eyewitness, Buddhist texts and Mexican annals also describe this cosmic event that caused much destruction.
The Long Day of Joshua (Joshua 10:12-15)
Fifty-two years later this comet returned again, this time the head of the comet passed so close to earth that it caused a rain of meteorites (the “huge stones from heaven” mentioned in Joshua 10:11). Earth’s encounter with the comet also caused the earth to depart from its regular rotation, thus causing the long day mentioned in the book of Joshua.
The Dial of Ahaz (Isaiah 38; 2 Kings 20)
About seven hundred and fifty years after the comet came close to earth, several celestial events took place that changed planetary history. In the eighth century B.C., the prophets Isaiah, Joel, Hosea, and Micah, the Hebrew prophets who “were verses in the lore of the heavenly motion” (p. 207), “insisted unanimously and with great emphasis on the inevitability of another encounter of the earth with some cosmic body” (p. 208).
In 747 B.C., on February 26, in the days of King Uzziah of Judah, a cosmic event, “brought about by an extraterrestrial agent,” caused a “disturbance in the motion of the earth on its axis and along its orbit” that made the old calendar of 360 days obsolete and created the present calendar of 365 days. Then, on the day that King Ahaz was buried, another celestial event caused the terrestrial axis to shift thus delaying sunset for several hours. Then another celestial event occurred in the days of Hezekiah that caused the prolongation of the day. Velikovsky wrote: “Talmudic tradition explains that the day was shortened by ten degrees on the day when Ahaz was buried, and the day was prolonged by ten degrees when Hezekiah was ill and recovered, and this is the meaning of the ‘shadow of the degrees which is gone down on the sun dial of Ahaz’” (p. 233).
These celestial perturbations, which occurred every fourteen to sixteen years, were caused by Mars. In the eighth century B.C., Mars and Venus collided and the collision changed the orbits of the two planets. This collision placed Venus and Mars in their present orbits. According to Velikovsky, this event is celebrated in the Iliad and in Mexican, Chinese, and Hindu literature.
I am not an astronomer or a planetary scientist but as a lay person in these field of studies it is difficult for me to accept Velikovsky’s theory. Although the collision of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter from July 16 through July 22, 1994 and the most recent collision of another comet with Jupiter in July 2009 prove that a collision between a comet and a planet in our solar system can occur within historical memory, it is almost unbelievable that the planet Venus did not exist until 3500 years ago and that Venus and Mars did not have their present orbits until 2700 years ago.
As an Old Testament scholar, it is hard for me to conceive that the plagues of Egypt were caused by a comet passing close to the earth about 1500 B.C. and that the comet with its trailing atmosphere brought with it many small insects and their larvae which became the cause of the plagues of insects that devastated Egypt at the time of the exodus (it is doubtful whether the Exodus happened in 1500 B.C.).
It is also hard to believe in the tenth plague, the people of Egypt (not “the first born” of Egypt but “the chosen ones” of Egypt) died because of a great earthquake and that the people of Israel escaped because their houses were huts of clay and reeds and more resilient to earthquakes than bricks and stones which were characteristic of Egyptian houses.
Velikovsky proves his theory by using cosmological myths from Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, China, Mexico, Assyria, and Babylon. These myths and Jewish legends are used to prove that earth came into contact with Venus and this catastrophic event is behind the narrative of the plagues in the book of Exodus.
To me, Velikovsky’s theory is more than science and more than theology. His book is a work of comparative mythology that uses philology, theology, archaeology, and a little bit of psychology to defend and to prove the reliability of the biblical text.
In a chapter titled “Collective Amnesia” Velikovsky explains the reason people of antiquity failed to preserve good records and evidence of these cosmic events. He wrote:
“There occurred more than one world conflagration; the most horrible one was in the days of the Exodus. In hundreds of passages in the Bible, the Hebrews described what happened. Returning from the Babylonian exile in the sixth and the fifth centuries before this era, the Hebrews did not cease to learn and repeat the traditions, but they lost sight of the fearful reality of what they learned. Apparently, the post-Exile generations looked upon all these descriptions as the poetical utterances of religious literature” (p. 298-99).
Velikovsky uses Freud’s idea of repressed memory and neurosis to explain the reason past generations did not keep a more precise record of these events. According to Velikovsky, these events were too painful and too dramatic to remember, so people buried the horrible events of the past deep in their subconscious minds. Thus, the myths and folklore of ancient peoples are expressions of these catastrophic events that occurred in the distant past.
What I wrote above is only a brief summary of Velikovsky’s theory. Velikovsky has an impressive collection of ancient written documents that he uses to prove his argument. The erudition that he demonstrates in presenting his theory is impressive but not convincing. Velikovsky has more faith in ancient myths, Jewish legends, and in the folklore of primitive people than established scientific theories. And these are the arguments he will use to offer a radical reconstruction of ancient history.
It is possible that Velikovsky is right and that scientists, astronomers, Biblical scholars, and many theologians are wrong, but I doubt it. So, it is just fair that I conclude this review with the words of Robert H. Pfeiffer, the late Chairman of the Department of Semitic Language and History at Harvard University. His words appear on the cover of Velikovsky’s book. Pfeiffer wrote:
“Dr. Velikovsky discloses immense erudition and extraordinary ingenuity. He writes well and documents all his statements with original sources . . . His conclusions are amazing, unheard of, revolutionary, sensational . . . If Dr. Velikovsky is right, this volume is the greatest contribution to the investigation of ancient times ever written.”
I cannot recommend Velikovsky’s book as a reliable source of information for the proper exegesis of the Biblical text but the book is fascinating reading; it is, together with his two other books, a magnificent exercise in futility, as I will show next.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary